In my mid-20s, with far less patience than I currently possess, I tried reading EL Doctorow’s acclaimed novel Billy Bathgate. As I should have known, it was too dry, too literary for my taste. I want to revisit it soon as I’m sure my sentiment towards it now would be different. Nevertheless, I don’t understand how anyone can write a Prohibition era novel, even one with literary aspersions, and not have fun with it.
Legs is the book I wish Billy Bathgate was back in my 20s. It’s literary sure but it’s a lot of fun. It’s clever without being pretentious. It knows why the commoner such as myself might rubberneck to a book that they might not often read.
One reviewer wrote that this is the book everyone claims The Great Gatsby actually is. Now, I’m a big Gatsby fan so I feel that misses the mark a little. Gatsby is a cipher in the work that bears his name and that’s intentional. Still, I understand the point the reviewer is trying to make. This book is all about looking behind the curtain of glamor to see the real Legs Diamond for who he is. The result is fascinating and complex.
Many aspire to write/film a nuanced portrait of a gangster. Kennedy actually does it. Thanks to the helpful presence of Diamond’s lawyer Marcus, whose perspective all of this is filtered through, you get a good look at Diamond from all angles. You’re not supposed to like him or hate him completely. You’re just supposed to see that there’s nothing there behind the facade of gangsterism. He’s an average guy who through a series of circumstances fell into this life and is doing the best he can. He’s gets lucky until he doesn’t. The greater his luck gets, the more sensationalized his story becomes. But Kennedy makes it clear that this is nothing more than the fate of the universe.
Well-paired with Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach, another Gatsby-esque tale I read this past summer, Legs will almost certainly wind up on my “best of” list.