Analysis of William Kennedy’s Novels

William Kennedy’s (born, January 16, 1928) fiction is preoccupied with spirit of place, language, and style, and a mystic fusing of characters and dialogue. The place is Albany, New York, the capital city—nest of corrupt politics; heritor of Dutch, English, and Irish immigrants; home to canallers, crooks, bums and bag ladies, aristocrats, and numberswriters. Albany, like Boston, attracted a large Irish Catholic population, which brought its churches, schools, family ties, political machine, and underworld connections.

Kennedy’s style has been compared to that of sixteenth century French novelist François Rabelais for its opulent catalogs and its ribald scatology. Kennedy is not, however, a derivative writer. As his books unfold, one from another, he makes novel connections, adeptly developing the hallucinations of Bailey, the protagonist of The Ink Truck, the extrasensory perception of Martin Daugherty, one of the central consciousnesses of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and the ghosts of his victims visiting Francis Phelan on his quest for redemption in Ironweed.


William Kennedy

The Ink Truck

Kennedy’s first published novel, The Ink Truck, connects less strongly to these themes and styles than do later works. The novel focuses on the headquarters of a Newspaper Guild strike committee on the one-year anniversary of its strike against the daily newspaper of a town resembling Albany. Only four Guild members remain: Bailey, Rosenthal, Irma, and Jarvis, their leader. Bailey, the proverbial blundering Irish reporter, mixes his libido and marital problems with his earnest belief in the strike, now bogged down in trivialities.

Bailey’s relationship with his wife is strained and crazed: She is madly jealous, as she has reason to be. Bailey mixes idealism about the strike with several sexual romps and psychic encounters, punctuated by savage beatings from the scabs and company agents determined to break the strike.

Bailey’s fantasy is to open the valve on The Ink Truck coming to the newspaper plant, bleeding the newspaper’s black blood into the snow of the mean streets. In the Guild room near the paper plant, Bailey attempts to revive his affair with Irma, another of the few remaining strikers. Joined by Deek, a collegiate type and an executive’s son who wants to join the strike, the four members try to harass the paper’s owners, whose representative, Stanley, refuses to grant their demands, which, by this time, have become niggling. As they attempt to block The Ink Truck in the snow and release the ink, everything goes wrong. When Bailey sets fire to the vacant store where the gypsies congregate, Putzina, the queen, is fatally burned, and she dies in the hospital amid a wild gypsy rite. Antic writing celebrates Bailey’s subsequent kidnapping by the gypsies so that they seem comic despite the violence. Bailey escapes after cooperating with the company secretary in her sexual fantasy but is disillusioned when he finds that he must sign an apology to the newspaper company for the action of some members.

More setbacks emerge: Bailey takes back the apology, then finds that the motor has been taken out of his car. Rosenthal’s house has been trashed viciously. Bailey, expelled from the Newspaper Guild, goes home to find that his wife, Grace, has put all of his belongings on the curb to be pilfered. His uncle Melvin refuses to help but invites him to an elaborate pet funeral for his cat. Just after this event, the cat’s body disappears, a ludicrous culmination of all Bailey has lost: Guild, Guild benefits, apartment, and wife. Going literally underground, Bailey takes a job shelving books in the State Library, where Irma visits him to tell him that despite all setbacks, he, Rosenthal, and Deek are being hailed as The Ink Truck Heroes. In this aspect, Bailey prefigures the gangster hero, Legs Diamond, and the hero as transfigured bum, Francis Phelan, of the later books.

Becoming a media hero, Bailey makes one more futile try at The Ink Truck. In a grand finale, the orgiastic end-of-strike party hosted by Stanley becomes another humiliation for Bailey. Kennedy’s low-key and inconclusive ending leaves the characters where they began: looking at the place on the wall of the Guild Room where a sign hung over the mimeograph machine saying don’t sit here. Bailey tries to make sense of his experiences, but even the reader cannot understand. Some of the richest of these experiences—a religious pilgrimage by trolley car and a trip backward in time to a cholera epidemic in 1832—seem almost gratuitous, loose ends without much relationship to the rest of the story. Bailey realizes that “all the absurd things they’d all gone through, separately or together… were fixed in time and space and stood only for whatever meaning he, or anyone else, cared to give them.”


Kennedy’s next novel, Legs, develops clearer patterns and meanings, though with the same mixture of realism and surrealism as in The Ink Truck. Kennedy demonstrates the truth of his 1975 novel’s epigraph, “People like killers,” a quote from Eugène Ionesco, through his portrayal of John “Jack” Diamond, also known as “Legs,” an idolized, flamboyant underworld figure, a liquor smuggler during Prohibition, a careless killer, and a tough womanizer. Finally brought to justice by New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jack was mysteriously executed gangland style in Albany in December, 1931.

The story begins in a seedy Albany bar, where four of the book’s characters meet in 1974 to reminisce about the assassination of their gangster-hero, Jack “Legs” Diamond. The novel is a fictionalization of Jack’s life, superimposing fictional characters, fictional names for real people, and Kennedy’s imagination on real events. Three of the four in the frame story are minor, therefore surviving, members of Jack’s entourage. The fourth member of the group is Marcus Gorman, Jack’s attorney, mouthpiece, and friend, who gave up a political career to lend respectability and a capacity for legal chicanery to Jack. Marcus is the narrator of the novel, providing a less-than-intimate portrait, yet one filtered through a legal mind accustomed to the trickery of the profession as it was practiced then in Albany.

The book is tightly crafted, with parallel scenes, apt literary allusions, wellconstructed flashbacks, foreshadowing throughout, and, always, the map of Albany and its neighboring Catskills in mind. The sordid historical account is elevated with signs and coincidences: Marcus, employed by Jack after he successfully represented another gangster, visits Jack in the Catskills after speaking at a police communion breakfast in Albany; a copy of Rabelais is in the Knights of Columbus Library frequented by Marcus in Albany; one is in Jack’s bookcase at his Catskills hideaway. Literary allusions combined with Bonnie-and-Clyde violence produce Kennedy’s most transcendental effects. Marcus seems a divided consciousness: He regrets the straight-and-narrow life of Irish Catholic Albany and a secure role in politics, yet he has a way of suborning witnesses, getting them to pretend insanity, and ignoring obvious hints about Jack’s grislier killings (such as the garage murder of an erstwhile ally).

Jack Diamond became a mythical imaginative popular hero, a “luminous” personality who appealed to the crowds and remained their darling even in his final trials. He survived assassination attempts, though his murder is foretold from the beginning. The story is interwoven with parallels and coincidences. Kiki, Jack’s gorgeous mistress, engages in a monologue reminiscent of Molly Bloom’s in Joyce’s Ulysses when she learns (from a newspaper she has hidden in her closet) that Jack really kills people. Then, when Jack is shot in a hotel (he recovers), Kiki leaves for a friend’s apartment and hides in her closet from both the police and the rival gangsters.

Finally, Jack comes to trial over his torture of a farmer in the matter of a still. The farmer complains, and a grand jury is called by Roosevelt. Though he is acquitted of the assault on the farmer, a federal case against him nearly succeeds because of the testimony of an aide Jack betrayed. Following this, Jack is shot and killed in a rooming house in Albany.

Part of the novel’s theme relates to the legal profession. Marcus insists that he defends those who pay his fee. In Jack’s second trial, he uses an old nun, a courthouse regular, telling the court in a rambling summation that this old nun came to tell him how compassionate Jack Diamond was. Though a complete fabrication, these emotional touches win juries.

Kennedy’s manic touch is evident in his portrayal of scenes on an ocean liner as Jack and Marcus try to conclude a drug deal, in the Kenmore bar in Albany in its art deco heyday, and of the singing of “My Mother’s Rosary” at the Elk’s Club bar in Albany. The final coda is a lyrically written, but puzzling, apotheosis: Jack, dead, gradually emerges from his body, in a transfiguration worthy of a Seigfried or a Njall of Nordic sagas.

Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game

Kennedy’s next novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, tells the story of another of Albany’s historical crimes—the real kidnapping of the political boss Dan O’Connell’s nephew—through the framework of a series of games of chance played by a young hanger-on of the city’s underside. He is Billy Phelan, son of an absent father, Francis, who will be the protagonist of Ironweed. The other consciousness of the book is Martin Daugherty, old neighbor of the Phelans and a newspaperman. The time frame covers several days in late October, 1938, the time of the greatest game—the kidnapping.

Family interrelationships loom importantly in this novel. Billy Phelan has lost his father, Francis, by desertion twenty-two years before; Martin’s father, a writer with an insane wife and a lovely mistress, now lies senile in a nursing home. The politically powerful McCall family almost loses their only heir, the pudgy, ineffectual Charlie. Martin lusts after his father’s mistress, who plays sexual games with him. Similarly, Billy’s lady friend, Angie, cleverly outwits him by pretending to be pregnant, to see what Billy will do. They have never, she says, really talked about anything seriously. Billy reminisces about rowing down Broadway in a boat, during a flood in 1913, with his father and uncle. Soon, he finds his father in a seedy bar, along with his companion Helen, and gives Helen his last money for his father.

This novel frames and mirrors an unsavory crime in the lives of ordinary, yet complicated, human beings. Kennedy’s wealth of language, his handiness with an anecdote, sometimes leads him to leave loose ends in his otherwise tightly constructed narratives. For example, Martin Daugherty has extrasensory perception; moreover, he lusts after his father’s former mistress Melissa, who also has a taste for women. These details are interesting, yet, unlike the appearance of the vagrant Francis Phelan, these anecdotes do not further the plot or embellish the theme. Kennedy’s novels unfold in a profusion of ideas, one from the other, both in language and in plot. The same time frame and some of the same characters appear in Ironweed, the final book of the cycle and the Pulitzer Prize winner.


Ironweed takes place immediately after the events in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, on Halloween and All Saint’s Day, 1938, just after the radio broadcast of Orson Welles’s adaptation of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898). The dates are not randomly chosen: The story, though on the surface the saga of a failed, homeless man, is actually a religious pilgrimage toward redemption from sin. Ironweed is described in an epigraph as a tough-stemmed member of the sunflower family, and Francis, like the weed, is a survivor. These analogies, like the Welles broadcast, hinge on a question of belief important to this novel.

Unlike Kennedy’s previous books, Ironweed has no narrator or central consciousness. The main character, Francis Phelan, first left home after he killed a man during a transit strike by throwing a stone during a demonstration against the hiring of scab trolley drivers. Subsequently he returned, but left for long periods when he played professional baseball. Later, he disappeared for twenty-two years after he dropped his infant son while diapering him; the child died, yet Francis’s wife, Annie, never told anyone who dropped Gerald. Francis and another bum, Rudy, dying of cancer, get jobs digging in St. Agnes’s Cemetery, where Gerald and other relatives are buried.

Reason and fact are supremely important in the book, yet within one page Francis’s mother, a disagreeable hypocrite, twitches in her grave and eats crosses made from weeds, and the infant Gerald converses with his father and wills him to perform acts of expiation, as yet unknown, that will cease his self-destructiveness and bring forgiveness. Francis has killed several people besides the scab driver, yet it is not for these crimes that he needs forgiveness but for deserting his family. The rest of the book chronicles his redemption. Throughout, shifts to fantasy occur, triggered by passages of straight memory and detailed history. Ghosts of the men Francis killed ride the bus back to Albany, yet they do not seem as horrible to Francis as a woman he finds near the mission, freezing in the cold. He drapes a blanket around her, yet later he finds her dead, mangled and eaten by dogs.

During the night, Francis meets with his hobo “wife,” Helen, a gently educated musician (she once went to Vassar) with enough energy, though dying of a tumor, to sing proudly in a pub on their rounds. In the mission, Francis gets a pair of warm socks; on the street, Helen is robbed of the money given to her by Francis’s son Billy. Then follows a nightmare search through the cold streets for shelter for the delicate Helen. In desperation, Francis goes to a friend’s apartment, where he washes his genital region in the toilet and begs a clean pair of shorts. The friend refuses them shelter, so Francis leaves Helen in an abandoned car with several men, though he knows she will be molested sexually.

The next day, Francis gets a job with a junkman. While making his rounds, he reads in a paper about his son Billy getting mixed up in the McCall kidnapping. Making the rounds of old neighborhoods, buying junk from housewives, releases a flood of memories for Francis: He sees his parents, his neighbors the Daughertys in their house, now burned, where one day the mad Katrina Daugherty walked out of her house naked to be rescued by the seventeen-year-old Francis. Because of this memory, he buys a shirt from the ragman to replace his filthy one. While he is buying the shirt, Helen goes to Mass, then listens to records in a record store (stealing one). Retrieving money she has hidden in her bra, Helen redeems the suitcase at the hotel. In her room, she recalls her life, her beloved father’s suicide, her mother’s cheating her of her inheritance, and her exploiting lover/employer in the music store. Washing herself and putting on her Japanese kimono, she prepares to die.

Francis, meanwhile, revisits his family, bringing a turkey bought with his earnings from the day’s job. He bathes, dresses in his old clothing his wife has saved, looks over souvenirs, meets his grandson, gets his daughter’s forgiveness as well as his wife’s, and is even invited to return. He leaves, however, and finds Rudy; together they look for Helen. Finding Helen registered at Palumbo’s Hotel, Francis leaves money with the clerk for her. The final violent scene occurs in a hobo jungle, as it is being raided by Legionnaires. Francis kills Rudy’s attacker with his own baseball bat and carries the fatally injured Rudy to the hospital. Returning to the hotel, Francis discovers Helen dead and leaves swiftly in a freight car.

The ending, typical of Kennedy’s novels, is inconclusive. The reader can assume either that Francis leaves on a southbound freight or that he returns to his wife Annie’s house and lives hidden in the attic. The use of the conditional in narration of this final section lends the necessary vagueness. Nevertheless, in Ironweed, the intricacy of poetry combines with factual detail and hallucinatory fugues to create a tight structure, the most nearly perfect of The Albany Cycle and its appropriate conclusion. The parallelism, for example, of a discussion of the temptations of Saint Anthony with the name of the Italian Church of St. Anthony, where Helen hears Mass on her last day of life, shows the craftsmanship of the author. The interconnections of theme, plot, and character in the three Albany novels, their hallucinatory fantasies, their ghostly visitations, ennoble the lowest of the low into modern epic heroes.

Quinn’s Book

Kennedy’s next novel, Quinn’s Book, also centers on Albany. Spanning a period from the late 1840’s to the mid-1860’s, Quinn’s Book is a historical novel infused with Magical Realism, deliberately extravagant in style. The narrator and protagonist, Daniel Quinn, an orphan, relates his adventures and his gradual progress toward maturity. Ultimately he becomes a writer, encouraged by his editor on the Albany Chronicle, Will Canady (whose name suggests that he is the author’s alter ego). Coming-of-age tale, picaresque, novel of education, Künstlerroman: Quinn’s Book partakes of all these genres and more, generally stopping just short of parody. It is Kennedy’s most explicit celebration of the transformative power of art.

Very Old Bones

In Very Old Bones, Kennedy focuses on the Phelan family history, his narrator a third-generation, albeit unacknowledged, Phelan. Orson Purcell, child of Peter Phelan and his landlady, Claire Purcell, has come to the family home in Albany to care for the ailing Peter. Orson brings a troubled soul to the house that was home to his father, but not to him. Uncertain of his identity, he has suffered two breakdowns and alternately mythologizes and demonizes his wife Giselle, a talented photographer.

In the house on Colonie Street, Orson composes a family history, a “memoir,” while his father struggles to complete the Malachi Suite, a series of paintings that document a tragic but pivotal event in the family’s past. The two artists find solutions to the mysteries of their own lives by unearthing “Very Old Bones,” not unlike the construction crews who have discovered the skeleton of a mastodon beneath Albany’s old water filtration plant.

The event that provides the key to so many Phelan mysteries is the 1887 “exorcism” murder of Lizzie McIlhenny at the hands of her demented husband Malachi, brother of Kathryn Phelan. The story helps to explain the unremitting joylessness of the Phelan matriarch, an unwilling spectator of the horror. In addition, the four paintings in the suite depict the patterns of belief that have informed the behavior of successive generations of Phelans: a distrust of happiness, a keen awareness of the dark forces afoot in the world, and a conviction that the past is always buried in a very shallow grave.

The Flaming Corsage

The Flaming Corsage, the sixth novel in the Albany Cycle, begins with a cryptic account of the so-called Love Nest killings in 1908, a scandalous event in which the playwright Edward Daugherty is injured by his friend Giles Fitzroy, who then kills his own wife and himself.

The complex of causes resulting in the killings had been set in motion a generation earlier when Emmett Daugherty saved the life of his employer who, in gratitude, promised to educate Emmett’s children. Thus, Edward Daugherty, a well-educated child of Albany’s Irish North, is positioned not only to court the granddaughter of his patron but also to incur the envy of his colleague, Maginn, a Claggert-like figure whose machinations lead to the killings.

The union of Edward and Katrina is doomed because it defies the ethnic, religious, and class divisions of Albany, but the turning point in their marriage is the fire in the Delavan Hotel that indirectly claims the lives of Katrina’s sister and father. Katrina herself is scarred when a flaming stick pierces her breast and sets her corsage afire. Finding in the accidental tragedy an indictment of her own and Edward’s behavior, Katrina withdraws from her husband and unwittingly sets in motion a new train of causation that will contribute to other deaths fourteen years later.

In The Flaming Corsage, Kennedy’s characters continue to seek “God’s own symmetry” in random tragedies while failing to anticipate the consequences of their own behavior. Love, like the flaming arrow that wounds Katrina, is more often a cause of than a cure for the sadness of life.


Kennedy’s seventh novel of the Albany cycle, Roscoe is the story of Roscoe Conway, the boisterous, engaging, and rogue politician who has made the Democratic Party what it is in 1930’s and 1940’s Albany. The book begins in 1945, as Roscoe has decided, finally, to retire from politics. A series of barriers, however, stand in the way, and the retirement has to be delayed.

Things fall apart when Roscoe’s best friend, steel magnate Elisha Fitzgibbon, commits suicide, and his former wife, the sister of Elisha’s widow, returns to add mayhem to an already volatile situation. Meanwhile, Roscoe is working to get Alex Fitzgibbon, Elisha’s son, back into the office of mayor. He is also attempting to patch up a feud between Democratic leader Patsy McCall and his brothers, characters who previously appeared in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. On top of this, Roscoe is also trying to heal the divide between McCall stooge Mac McEvoy and Roscoe’s brother O.B., Albany’s chief of police, over credit for the killing of Jack “Legs” Diamond.

Another element that adds confusion and chaos to Roscoe’s life is his longtime love for Elisha’s widow, Veronica. Now that Elisha is dead, Roscoe finally works up the courage to make a move on Veronica, and he is very close to winning her heart. As if that were not enough, Roscoe also receives visitations from his dead father, Felix, and the reader is reminded how commonplace it is for the living to communicate with the dead in Kennedy’s Albany.

In some ways, Roscoe is the book that Kennedy has always needed and wanted to write. It is an investigation into the nature of a certain kind of politician, the kind that seemingly no longer exists. Hot-blooded Roscoe bears much in common with legendary politicians of old such as Jimmy Walker and Fiorello La Guardia, and he injects vibrancy and comic energy into Kennedy’s otherwise dark vision of the post World War II Albany political machine. More than that, though, the novel is about Roscoe’s Irishness and about the archetypal Irish American Democrat of the first half of the twentieth century. Whether one reads Roscoe as historical fiction, as a tale about power in the vein of William Shakespeare’s Henry IV (c. 1597-1598), or as a simple legal thriller, Roscoe is a successful contribution to the Albany cycle, one that cements Kennedy’s place among America’s greatest literary regionalists and also helps shed light on a time when politicians were as flawed and crooked as ever, yet full of a vivacity and originality that has all but disappeared from the American political landscape.

In interviews, Kennedy has stressed the importance to him of writing about past events instead of current events in the interest of avoiding the trap of writing mere journalism. With Roscoe, the reader sees why this formula works for Kennedy. He allows himself enough distance, enough freedom, to mold and shape these characters into unique and spirited creations. An exposé on a recent or current political figure would surely backfire for precisely all the reasons that Roscoe works so well.

Major Works
Long fiction
The Ink Truck, 1969; Legs, 1975; Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, 1978; Ironweed, 1983; The Albany Cycle, 1985 (includes Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, and Ironweed); Quinn’s Book, 1988 (continues the Albany cycle); Very Old Bones, 1992 (continues the Albany cycle); The Flaming Corsage, 1996 (continues the Albany cycle); Roscoe, 2002 (continues the Albany cycle).
Short fiction: “The Secrets of Creative Love,” 1983; “An Exchange of Gifts,” 1985; “A Cataclysm of Love,” 1986.
Screenplays: The Cotton Club, 1984 (with Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo); Ironweed, 1987 (adaptation of his novel).
Nonfiction: Getting It All, Saving It All: Some Notes by an Extremist, 1978; O Albany! An Urban Tapestry, 1983 (also known as O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels, 1983); The Capitol in Albany, 1986; Riding the Yellow Trolley Car: Selected Nonfiction, 1993; Conversations with William Kennedy, 1997 (Neila C. Seshachari, editor). children’s literature: Charlie Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine, 1986 (with Brendan Kennedy); Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose, 1994 (with Brendan Kennedy); Roscoe and Me: The Specific and the Impossible, 2003.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


Categories: Literature

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