Kennedy considers writing as a path to discovery, and has described Legs as the “first novel where I really learned how to write a novel,” though it took six years and a pile of manuscripts taller than his then six-year-old son Brendan. The first book of what has become Kennedy’s Albany Cycle, it tells the tale of the notorious gangster of the 1920s and ’30s, Jack (Legs) Diamond. In an interview with the novelist Edward Schwarzchild, Kennedy reflected: “The question is always the same: what’s new about this subject? When I was writing Legs … the gangster novel and movie were clichés; the genre was a cliché … I believed there was something new to be found in the story of Diamond’s life, and in how the world looked at gangsters and I think I found (something).” (Edward Schwarzchild, William Kennedy interview in The Believer, 4:2 October 2006, p 77-86.)
"To read him is to know how the tomato plants must feel when the nitrogen hits their roots ... Legs was the idol of America."
— W.T. Lhamon
Jonathan Yardley, as book editor of the Miami Herald, wrote, “It seems to me that the greatest and most important story of the Twenties, that of Jay Gatsby … reminds of the end of the American dream. Gatsby hovers in the background throughout Kennedy’s remarkable new novel … this too is about the American dream—but about its dark side, the stain of violence and criminality that cannot be expunged from our national life. It is a beautiful, bittersweet book, written with a smile and a tear, recreating a lost era with love and care, bringing home with force the legacy that era presented to us ... In telling us about the American underworld, it tells us all too much about (ourselves).” (Jonathan Yardley, "A remarkable novel about 'legs' Diamond, Miami Herald, c 1975.)
Author W.T. Lhamon, Jr. reviewed Legs in The New Republic: “One of the pleasures of Legs, Kennedy’s second novel, is that it drove me back to his first, The Ink Truck … Both books have in common Kennedy’s sustained verbal energy. His is a talent that has traditionally clustered on the front porches of country stores, or in taverns, or on the airwaves of special disc jockeys. It is a compulsive talent, made all the more valuable as the recent world threatens daily to leave words behind. Taking that abandonment as a challenge, Kennedy sometimes seems to show how he can, hocus pocus, weave the whole world with words. His is a spell that works. I’d like to sit down on the bar, or on the stoop, listening to this man pump his language … To read him is to know how the tomato plants must feel when the nitrogen hits their roots ... Legs was the idol of America, [and] he also became the idol of Marcus Gorman, Kennedy’s narrator and Diamond’s lawyer, who is a mixture of the best qualities of Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and Jack Burden in All The King’s Men … Gorman is no Clarence Darrow picking his clients for righteous reasons. And Legs Diamond is deadlier than either Gatsby or Willie Stark … Kennedy’s interests are clearly sociological and psychological, but he is a novelist at bottom. He wants the sort of indefinite and suggestive truth germane to fiction, hostile to statistics, and finally dependent on the lode of language mined in the privacy of (imagination).” (W.T. Lhamon, The New Republic, May 24, 1975, p. 23-24)
"In taking Diamond for his subject, Kennedy means to probe our peculiar American habit of reviling gangsters while pressing them for autographs ..."
— Peter S. Prescott
Peter S. Prescott in Newsweek described Legs as “not a crime novel at all but a real novel about a criminal—there is a difference. In taking Diamond for his subject, Kennedy means to probe our peculiar American habit of reviling gangsters while pressing them for autographs ... Jack is a hero, then, or at least a man so alive he cannot believe, when the bullets finally overcome him, in his own death. It is a peculiarly seductive portrait and Legs is a very skillful story, full of bounce and (wit).” (Peter S. Prescott, Newsweek, June 23, 1975, p. 91-93)
Reviewer Richard Vincent in the Albany Times Union wrote of Legs, “What makes this an outstanding work of fiction are the tools of the writer’s craft that Kennedy brings to it … What sets this novel quite apart from the inbred, parochial, even incestuous quality of those writers so dear to the sensibilities of the Eastern Literary Establishment, is the simple, sure, intuitive sense with which Kennedy puts his words together, or, the final consummate act of the true art of writing. It is here that Kennedy seldom puts a foot wrong, and which raises this book from the documentary to the top level of American creative writing.”
In his review in the Washington Post Book World, novelist L.J. Davis pondered “why Americans who make such good gangster movies, write such awful gangster novels … We can turn cowboys into literature, we can turn businessmen into literature, but until now gangsters—and, interestingly, politicians—have eluded the novelist’s informing eye. I am happy to report that William Kennedy has at last taken steps to set matters to rights … Legs is what a novel is supposed to be: a mirror walking down the road of man, and it deserves our closest and most serious attention.”
Legs was an alternate selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club in September 1975.
Legs was published in Denmark, France and Germany.