Ironweed, by William Kennedy, won the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and National Critics Circle Award for fiction. It was the third in Kennedy’s cycle of novels of Albany, New York, in the 1930s. Kennedy is a former journalist who wrote his first novel, The Ink Truck, in 1969—but not many people noticed either that effort or the first two parts of the Albany cycle, Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. Ironweed was rejected by all the major publishers before Viking brought it out in 1983. It became celebrated and then all of Kennedy’s books were rescued from the dust­bin.

When an author triumphs after such treatment, the bumper crop of repentant raves in the news­papers can be so large as to be almost unseemly. Even the reaper of that rich harvest, William Kennedy, thinks so. In an interview with the New York Times the author said: “When Ironweed came out, the good response to the other books was as if they never had been published before.” Kennedy is right to remark on the reviewers’ scramble to “discover” him after he had been around for ages. But their clumsiness is perhaps not their biggest fault; it would be excusable if it were a masterpiece they were late in recognizing. The Albany cycle is far from that.

The cycle’s three protagonists are the real-life Jack (Legs) Diamond, and Billy Phelan and his father Francis Phelan, both fictional. They are a gangster, a bookie, and a bum, respectively. The reviewers see them as antiheroes who follow moral codes of their own devising. Robert Towers of the New York Review of Books says a Kennedy character “has his own peculiar standards to uphold.” George Stade of the New York Times calls it having “a perverse kind of integrity,” and R. Z. Sheppard of Time magazine uses the phrase “private validity.” It might, however, be more accurate, to settle on a less fancy term like “criminality.”

Readers today think they should approve of any nonconformity a novelist throws their way. When they meet up with shady characters por­trayed with affectionate lunacy by a windy Irish­man, their response is empathy in quantities even greater than the Irishman may have been looking for. It is bad enough that the critics are trying to hustle Kennedy into the ranks of James Joyce and William Butler Yeats (such inflations indicate we are in a literary recession of major propor­tions); what is worse is that, to lionize a Kennedy anti-hero, they will enthusiastically excuse him for acts neither the anti-hero nor his creator find “privately valid.” To see what I mean, let us begin with the bum.

Francis Phelan, an ex-major leaguer, first took to the road because he used his great third baseman’s throwing arm to hit and kill an opponent with a potato-sized rock during an Albany trolley strike. Francis returned to Albany to his wife and three children years later, only to kill his infant son by accidentally dropping him on the floor. He is also directly or indirectly connected to five other violent deaths.

Francis’s guilty conscience has turned him into the gaunt, shiftless alcoholic we see revisiting Albany at the opening of Ironweed. He and his bum companion Helen, a sort of second wife to him, are staying at a Bible mission and soup kitchen where they decide to reform themselves. Not that they buy any of the fundamentalist Protestant scolding doled out with the soup—they may be bums, but they are Catholic bums. They just want to get cleaned up and dried out. However, their plans go awry. They go to the Gilded Cage Saloon to look up an old friend; they end up taking that unintended next drink, and slide right back into penniless transience and stay there for the rest of the book.

Kennedy is a good enough storyteller to understate the failed rehabilitation of Francis and Helen and make it sad. But Elaine Kendall writes in the Los Angeles Times: “The two of them [Francis and Helen] define dignity to suit themselves and there’s no reason to feel sad. They don’t, why should you? What looks like misery and degradation to outsiders is freedom to them.” Anyone who has read Ironweed will be too depressed to respond to this existential pep talk. For those who have not read it, rest assured that what “looks like misery and degradation” in Ironweed really is misery and degradation.

This failure to carry out a good intention, one among many of Francis’s failures, is important: Is he responsible for it? The answer is, yes and no. Kennedy will often pile up the “yes” and “no” components of responsibility for human action, balancing will and extenuating circumstance until they come out—or momentarily seem to come out—even.

Ambiguous responsibility for sin and failure is the major preoccupation of his fiction. Yet he handles it with little success. The character of Francis Phelan represents an improvement over earlier protagonists. Francis is more complicated than they, and since he is in pain, he provides a better way to pose the tough questions of right and wrong that Kennedy wants to get at. Still, in Ironweed (and more so in Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game), Kennedy loses control over those questions. He feels the need, for example, to have Francis, who mulls over his checkered history in flashbacks throughout the novel, add a fresh murder to his sins at the very end. It is committed in defense of a friend and with one skilled swing of a baseball bat—another display of athletic talent with fatal consequences. Ambiguity is a valid literary tool, but when unchecked, it paves the way for “open-minded” readers to bulldoze the fragile moral structure he appears to be trying to build.

With Francis, Kennedy goes further in his probe of conation than he does anywhere else in his fiction; yet the critics fail to follow Kennedy’s lead. On the one hand there is the egregious Kendall, who sees Francis and Helen as a liberated couple. On the other hand there are the rest of them, who lament that Francis is unliberated and hence unable to get rid of his bothersome conscience. Webster Schott of the Washington Post finds it mysterious that, after the things Francis has done, he would run away for twenty years, unable to face his guilt. After all, the trolley incident of his youth resulted in no prosecution, and his wife never told a soul that their baby did not fall but was dropped by him. If he was not going to get in trouble for either death, why not stay put? Schott does not solve the mystery, and shrugs: “It’s uncertain. It’s unimportant. The man is real.” Robert Towers asks in the New York Review of Books: “Did or did not Francis, the glorious ballplayer, mean to kill the strike-breaking trolley conductor? At one point he contemplates ‘the evil autonomy of his hands.'” There can be no doubt about his intention: Francis explains to a friend that he did mean to kill the man because the man took his job. It is the legitimacy of the intention that is supposed to be uncertain, and torturous in its uncertainty.

So Francis does stare at his hands, but not to reason away murder by virtue of its spon­taneity. Elsewhere in Ironweed, Kennedy also has him contemplate “his compulsive violence and his fear of justice.” Francis concludes here that “[e]verything was easier than coming home, even reducing yourself to the level of social maggot, streetside slug.” The extent to which frontal self-condemnations like these are either twisted or ignored by commentators, to redeem a character whom it is not clear Kennedy wants ultimately to redeem, is astounding.

Catholicism impinges on Kennedy’s work. He has said he borrows the Catholic definition of sin to avoid the “vapidity of guilt” he finds in much of modern literature. But it does not help to look to Catholic opinion on Kennedy to assess whether he is putting that definition to good use: George W. Hunt, literary editor of the Jesuit weekly America, says more muddle-headed things on the subject than the secular critics. Of the scene in Ironweed where shades appear with Francis in a graveyard and judge his past, Hunt says that some spirits, because they do not have their wings yet, can afford only to be “accusatory in a relaxed way.”

George Stade of the New York Times is alone in seeing Francis’s deep compunction as warranted. It is the more surprising, then, when Stade too succumbs: “We soon come to value this loser [Francis], who loses largely because he plays by stricter rules than he sets for anyone else.” Stricter rules? One of the skid-row rules we learn about in Ironweed-and Francis accepts and goes by it-is that to find a warm spot for the night, one often has to have sex with strangers before being allowed to sleep in peace beside them. When Francis finds Helen a place to sleep in a broken-down car and leaves her there next to the car’s drunken owner, Kennedy makes it unmistakably clear that both Francis and Helen recognize two things: that this is an act of intentional self-cuckolding, and that it is shameful.

No one has to bend over backwards to exonerate Jack (Legs) Diamond; this time Kennedy does the honors for us. For one thing, Legs isn’t hard on himself about his misdeeds the way Francis is. It is probably accurate to ascribe “private validity” to this rich, dashing psychopath; if he were not equipped with some­thing of that kind, he would not be able to enjoy extorting, torturing, and killing as much as he does throughout Legs.

Many events in the trilogy are historical, such as Francis’s trolley strike of 1901 and the 1933 kidnapping of the political boss’s nephew that is central to Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game. 0 Albany!, Kennedy’s autobiography, describes the New York capital from its settlement by the Dutch in the 17th century to its political domination by the Irish in the 20th century. One can find in O Albany! background on Kennedy’s use of real events and people for his fiction. In Legs, his plan was, in his words, “to assimilate all the truth, all the lies, all the fudged areas in between, and reinvent Jack.” Kennedy does not want to make him over entirely—”His cruelty pervades my book”—but reinventing him necessarily involves some cozying up to him.

The cozying is done through the narrator of Legs, a narrator who is also the gangster’s sidekick. This is Legs’s friend and defense lawyer, taken from real life and given the name Marcus Gorman. Gorman plays Nick Carraway to Legs’s Gatsby, a literate, retiring hanger-on irresistably drawn to an exciting bootlegger. There is a lot of 1930s detail, a lot of violence and surreal Kennedyesque rambling-and a lot of skillful apology by Gorman on behalf of his infamous friend, both in the courtroom and outside of it.

Gorman is often embarrassed about his adulation of Legs, as when he confesses to neglecting his own law practice to go traipsing after him:

I had no pressing business in New York, but I made it a point to go . . . because I was now addicted to entering the world of Jack Diamond as fully as possible. I was unable not to stick around and see how it all turned out. And yes, I know, even as a spectator, I was condoning the worst sort of behavior. Absolute worst. I know, I know.

Because we know he knows, we are supposed to respect Gorman’s honesty and join in his feeling that Legs “was a liar, of course, a perjurer, all of that, but he was also a venal man of integrity, for he never ceased to renew his vulnerability to punishment, death and damnation.” I was pleased when Legs finally, after many narrow escapes, proved vulnerable to three bullets in the head as he lay sleeping in an Albany boarding-house.

Billy Phelan is not as bad as the others. He is merely a city slicker, a sport, whose flair for bowling, pool, dealing cards, and taking bets gives him his living. He is even attractive in some ways. Yet, like Legs, he is supplied with a sycophantic chronicler, a journalist named Martin Daugherty. Daugherty, though not the narrator, is the character whose thoughts are sampled most often throughout the story. Like Gorman with Legs, Daugherty presses Billy’s mythic qualities upon us just a little too eagerly. At the opening of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, it looks like Billy might bowl a perfect game against the local champion. Daugherty is thinking of writing his next column about Billy if he succeeds (he misses by one pin):

He would point out how some men moved through the daily sludge of their lives and then, with a stroke, cut away the sludge and transformed themselves. Yet what they became was not the result of a sudden act, but the culmination of all they had ever done: a triumph for self-development, the end of something general, the beginning of something specific. To Martin, Billy Phelan, on an early Thursday morning in late October, 1938, already seemed more specific than most men. Billy seemed fully defined at thirty-one (the age when Martin had been advised by his father that he was a failure).

Billy gets caught in the middle of the kidnap­ping of a political boss’s nephew but has too much dignity to be a subservient go-between in the effort to get the boy back. The missing boy’s uncle controls the city government, and his father controls Albany’s gambling and drinking concessions. The family of the real-life Dan O’Connell, political boss of Albany for fifty years, is the model here. The two brothers have marked the uncooperative Billy bad, and they order the denizens of the bars, clubs, and pool halls that form Billy’s universe to give him the hazing treatment. No more drinking or gaming on Broadway for Billy.

The deprivation nearly drives Billy to suicide. (This is an unwitting clue to just what a punk he really is, for all his admirable toughness and self-sufficiency.) In a final sycophantic turn, it is Martin Daugherty’s column about him in the Times Union that explains to the community the vindictive reason for banning this independent young man. The newspaper column reinstates Billy with the gang on Broadway and lets him live again.

In some ways, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game is the most readable novel in the Albany cycle. It shows the gentlemanly niceties of the newsman-politician relationship in pre-Watergate, pre-Vietnam American life. Also, authentic locale is Kennedy’s strength. It is fun to arrive in this bygone urban world of fedoras, diners, five-cent cups of coffee, streetcars, and Dutch place names, where bowling alleys had pin boys to set up the pins and where the Democratic machine and the Knights of Columbus held the citizenry-mostly white ethnics-together.

The Ink Truck is not considered part of the Albany cycle, although in a sketchy way it takes place there. It has nothing to recommend it; it neither raises interesting moral questions nor has a flavorful atmosphere. The main character is a labor radical, a devoted one rather than an occasional one like Francis Phelan. His name is Bailey. Bailey’s goal is to let ink flow in the streets to dramatize his union’s grievances against the newspaper company he works for as, typically, a columnist.

The Ink Truck was written in the sixties. In it Kennedy sows wild countercultural oats (“In marijuana clarity Deek once leaped over his father’s head from a standing position”). With its crazy Irish-American Quixote pursuing a hopeless labor cause, the novel is an unsatisfying, pseudo-poetic version of John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant comic novel of that time, A Confederacy of Dunces. Bailey, with his “hulking, erudite wildness,” is reminiscent of Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly, a fat, Boethius-spouting crank who stirs up trouble against his absentee bosses at a dilapidated clothing factory. However, Bailey is not a cowardly faker like Ignatius J. Reilly, but a serious revolutionary. So unlike Toole, Kennedy is trying in The Ink Truck for something more than farce-unfortunate, because the serious point falls flat and so does virtually all of the humor, preventing the book from succeeding as farce.

This was the first of Kennedy’s attempts at creating a character who is an interesting failure. Bailey’s cause is lost but, in the way of these things, it is all the more beautiful for being lost. He is not afraid to mix it up with the police; he beats up and gets beat up, commits arson, gets kidnapped, goes on a hunger strike, rolls a company truck into a wall, releases a skunk in the company advertising office, and sings “Nell Flaherty’s Drake” and other old songs of the Irish rebellion. Despite all these activities, it is hard to sustain interest in this failure, who says things like, “We’re all victims of our own matrix, that’s the problem; and it could be solved if there were only a matrix mart. But since there isn’t, certain radical measures are called for.” Parnell and peyote, like driving and drinking, should not be mixed.

What accounts for the success of these books, with their hallucinating rogues and profound ne’er-do-wells? A wealth of unused or ill-used talent is one reason for their appeal. Billy Phelan might have been a bowling champion if he put his mind to it; Francis Phelan, his father, might have been a great professional baseball player; Helen Archer might have been the singer her musical training prepared her to be; Martin Daugherty was supposed to end up, not a local newspaperman, but a famous writer like his father; Marcus Gorman gave up a promising political career to be the friend of a gangster; and Bailey might have been Charles Stewart Parnell, or at least Bobby Sands. There is genius under every rock in Kennedy’s world. And in ours too, or so we believe in this age of self-help and potential maximization. Who among us looks forward to living the unfulfilled life and dying the undistinguished death of Kennedy’s “mute inglorious Miltons”? Very few of us. But by offering to his characters what we ourselves may have to make do with—a pat on the back for “what might have been”—William Kennedy, the newspaperman who was himself, until recently, a might-have-been, has gained a wide following.

Another reason for their appeal, related to the first, is that Kennedy’s particular defect as a writer meshes with the different and less pardonable defect of his audience. These ordinary Joes who are not so ordinary upon closer acquaintance act on very complex motives. But Kennedy’s zeal to complicate their motives often muddies up the picture. Not given a clear understanding of the characters’ failings and failures, the reader, if so inclined, may skip this formality and jump right to affirming those failings and failures as “I gotta be me” virtues and successes. If this seems a strange inclination, the reviewers show it in its purest form. They take the opportunity Kennedy offers and run with it: in finding “private validity” in the failings and failures of his characters, they demonstrate their inability to bestow public validity—the approval that members of a com­munity feel when agreed-upon standards are adhered to—upon the decent impulses Kennedy sprinkles in with the bad. Hence his more conscientious efforts go to waste, and his aim to put back into private conduct some sense of moral choice cannot but miss the mark.

Some of the reviewers, no doubt, have them­selves written unsung novels. Maybe in holding Kennedy up as a writer of the classics of tomorrow, many of them are merely cheering on one of their own. In itself there would be nothing wrong with that. It is just that the books they are cheering are not great, and their very cheers resound with the increasingly unreflective, lazy love of individualism—and anything that might look like it—with which our culture is smitten.