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Books 1969-1982

The Ink Truck (1969)   Fiction

William Kennedy’s first published novel, The Ink Truck, offered him an opportunity to be lifted “out of the predictable forms I’d been working in, forms that bored me, and that didn’t seem to reflect the surreal dimension of life as I knew (it).” (Seshachari 1996 p.253) The novel relates the story of a newspaper strike in a vividly evoked but unnamed Albany.

People magazine called it “Wildly funny, rich and full of lyrical moments.”

Time called it “Lean, energetic and grounded in detail and humanities ... a bawdy Celtic romp.” 

The Ink Truck published in Brazil and Spain

THE INK TRUCK
THE INK TRUCK

William Kennedy’s first published novel.

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caminhao de tinta
caminhao de tinta

Published in Brazil

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El Camion De La Tinta
El Camion De La Tinta

Published in Spain

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THE INK TRUCK
THE INK TRUCK

William Kennedy’s first published novel.

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LEGS
LEGS

The first book of what has become Kennedy’s "Albany Cycle".

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Gangsteren
Gangsteren

Published in Demark

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DerLange
DerLange

Published in Germany

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LEGS
LEGS

The first book of what has become Kennedy’s "Albany Cycle".

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Legs (1975)   Fiction-Albany Cycle

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.)

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)

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.

BILLY PHELAN'S GREATEST GAME
BILLY PHELAN'S GREATEST GAME

Introduction of the Phelan family in the second book of the "Albany Cycle" series.

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Billy Phelamn suurin peli
Billy Phelamn suurin peli

Published in Finland

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Billy Phelans storsta spel
Billy Phelans storsta spel

Published in Sweden

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BILLY PHELAN'S GREATEST GAME
BILLY PHELAN'S GREATEST GAME

Introduction of the Phelan family in the second book of the "Albany Cycle" series.

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Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978)   Fiction - Albany Cycle

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game introduces the Phelan family, whose ancestors and progeny appear in five subsequent novels and a play. Billy is a small-time Depression-era gambler, pool hustler, and bookie who, through association, becomes mixed up in the kidnapping of an Albany politician’s son. 

“Billy without a city is Billy without a father,” wrote author Dennis Lehane in his introduction to the 2012 Simon & Schuster edition of Billy in England, “because the city transformed into his father when his own, Francis, ran off and became a vagrant … Martin Daughtery has his own paternal demons … Martin, haunted by his failings as a son and as a father, is given of late to obsessing over the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac … ‘All sons,’ Martin muses, ‘are Isaac, all fathers are Abraham, and … all Isaacs become Abrahams if they work at it long enough’ … This is not a book you read so much as slip into … Let Billy and Martin introduce you to their friends and enemies, to Morrie and Big Daddy and Bump Oliver, Georgie the Syph, Chick Phelan, Footers O’Brien, and Red Tom.  And if it all sounds a bit Runyonesque, well he makes an appearance too.  You are about to be taken in hand by one of the twentieth century’s great raconteurs and led through a river of lights in a city like all others, but a city like none you’ve encountered before.  Enjoy the (trip).” (Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, London: Simon & Schuster UK Ltd., 2012.)

 

Doris Grumbach wrote in the Saturday Review, “No one writing in America today has Kennedy’s rich and fertile gift of gab; his pure verbal energy; his love of people,” and in the Wall Street Journal in 2011 Sam Sacks added, “More than 30 years after it first appeared, the book hasn’t lost a jot of its riffing, smart-aleck energy.”

 

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game was published in Finland, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden.

VERY OLD BONES 1st Edtion
VERY OLD BONES 1st Edtion

The fifth book of the "Albany Cycle" series.

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O Ramalhete em Chamas
O Ramalhete em Chamas

Published in Brazil

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Ossos Antigos
Ossos Antigos

Published in Portugal

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VERY OLD BONES 1st Edtion
VERY OLD BONES 1st Edtion

The fifth book of the "Albany Cycle" series.

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Very Old Bones (1982)   Fiction - Albany Cycle

In the early spring of 1953, and with blinding illumination on through the fall of 1954, Peter Phelan came to perceive this:  that individuals, families, or societies that willfully suppress their history will face a season of reckoning, one certain to arrive obliquely, in a dark place, and at a hostile hour, with consequences for the innocent as well as for the (conspirators). (Very Old Bones, p.189)  –Very Old Bones

“The Phelans can claim a place beside O’Neill’s Tyrones and Steinbeck’s Joads as one of the premier families of American literature who endure and, one hopes, prevail.  If you think great books are no longer being written, reading William Kennedy will change your mind.”(Library Journal, March 1, 1992)

In his review of Very Old Bones in The Recorder in 1992, the critic Noel O’Hara wrote, “We realize it is the commerce of Kennedy’s novels with the past and future that makes the Phelans profoundly different from the Karamazovs and the Compsons.  There is no longing for a lost past of God-given opportunities, as there is with Faulkner, no sense of historic decadence whose state is the present of the Karamazovs, through whom Dostoyevsky probes the destiny of man in the light of his own Christianity … The meaning this novel distills from the whole cycle is that the past is darkness and the future is the possibility of light."

“Kennedy’s sweat and blood are evident in the perfected and purposeful difference of each novel from the others, even though all are, by and large, grounded in the same society and place.  The straight 19th-century narrative style of Quinn’s Book was a surprise after the addictive free flow in space and time of Ironweed.  In Very Old Bones, Kennedy has not only laid the old transatlantic ghosts, but we view Phelans in places other than Albany for much of the time. … No character ever really dies in a Kennedy novel … For him, time is an expanding pool and not a straight line.”

Maureen Howard wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “What we have in Very Old Bones … is a masterly dig into the past of his own career by a writer who often seduces with the staged reality of his Albany, offering a romantic tour through its political scandals, Broadway bars and downtown flophouses, then leading us uphill to the really tough scenes behind the lace curtain sanctimony of Colonie Street.  The Phelans, Daughertys, Quinns reappear in Mr. Kennedy’s novels at his direction, a hardy troupe that never grows stale as the resident company … Beneath the mete and just end of this closely worked novel lie bitter bones of estrangement, of love hidden or misplaced, lives wasted by jealousy and fear … this odd literary novel, Very Old Bones, is a grand leap, the very best of William Kennedy’s work so (far).” (New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1992)

Tom Adair wrote in his review in Scotland on Sunday that “Kennedy’s Albany-cycle [novels] … jostle Updike’s Rabbit Quartet for a claim on the pulse of modern America.  Kennedy’s saga is generational, raiding the corners of a century that began in the 1850s, buck-riding the turbulence and the twitches of a stormy coming of age, if not coming to terms within the mesh of the family’s branches and stunted growth … There is an operatic grandiloquence in the emotions such scenes portray, a dandy flourish that matches the brio of Kennedy’s prose … This book is … a wonderful windfall for those who breathe their fiction neat.  It proves that America is restless with self-discovery … gifting us with writers of genius.  I have no doubt that this book is a classic; Kennedy’s best.”

Author Alan Cheuse wrote, “Albany, N.Y., may not yet have taken its rightful place east of Winesburg, Ohio, and north of Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., on the great literary map that serious American readers keep in their minds.  But it’s not for lack of trying on the part of novelist William Kennedy.  He has produced several beautifully crafted and often quite moving novels in his so-called Albany cycle, the best known of these being Ironweed.  Well, he’s still caught in that cycle, caught in the struggle and excitement and discoveries in the creation of it.  With … Very Old Bones … the reader feels a certain cause for wonder as (well).” (Dallas Morning News, April 4, 1992)

Gail Caldwell wrote in the Boston Sunday Globe, “Posing as Orson’s memoir, Very Old Bones is an immensely gratifying novel, one that touches on the wildest and saddest parts of the Phelan clan.  With its dialogue as chillingly perceptive as its family insights, the novel has about it a crisp, authoritative ease—as though the truth were just hiding there on the outskirts of Albany, waiting to be brought home … Kennedy has created such a mammothly persuasive group of people in this novel that it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s real and who isn’t … such is the power of seamless fiction … When Orson descends into the Phelans’ cellar, sent there by Molly on a devastating task, you can all but smell the musk and memories surrounding him.  William Kennedy the realist may have sketched that scene, but it took a master of the human heart to deliver (it).” (Boston Sunday Globe, April 26, 1992)

Very Old Bones was published in Brazil, Denmark, France and Portugal.

Books 1983-1993

IRONWEED
IRONWEED

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

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Ironweed
Ironweed

Published in Cuba

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Ironweed
Ironweed

Published in Taiwan

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IRONWEED
IRONWEED

A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.

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Ironweed (1983)   Fiction - Albany Cycle

Billy Phelan’s father, Francis, a derelict on the run from his own demons and past mistakes, is the principal character of Ironweed, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In a 1992 interview with Kennedy, former director of the New York State Writers Institute, the late Tom Smith, characterized Francis as “one of the gigantic, memorable, fallen characters in contemporary fiction … Readers all over the world seem to be able to empathize and identify with this character who is a drunk, a renegade, a runner, a killer … and yet, he’s a character of enormous moral (complexity).” (Seshachari p.207) Saul Bellow wrote of the book:  “Francis is also a traditional champion … To kill is his destiny, and he kills American style, with techniques learned in play, throwing a rock like a baseball and … hitting a man with a baseball bat.”

Charles Fanning wrote in The Irish Voice in America:  “Finally, comes the least and greatest of the [Albany Cycle’s] protagonists.  At age fifty-eight Francis Phelan is an alcoholic vagrant, the murderer of three men with a share of responsibility in several other deaths, and a twenty-year deserter of his wife and children.  And yet Kennedy creates him as a plausibly heroic figure holding to an austere set of values … through the course of … forty-eight hours, Francis meets and converses with all of the important ghosts of his past—from his parents, to companions of his youth, to those in whose violent deaths he has been implicated. Is this delirium tremens or is it ‘really’ happening?  The quality of the writing makes the question irrelevant.  It is simply one more of Kennedy’s successful paradoxes that this least deluded of men has plausible encounters with the dead.  Here, Kennedy echoes modern Irish literature, where such encounters are commonplace … Kennedy steps into his narrative to create written effects that call attention to themselves because they are beyond the ken of the novel’s characters, effects attributable directly to the consciousness of a narrative voice above and beyond the action—an intrusive omniscient narrator.  There is eloquence in Ironweed, and it blesses characters, situations, events from which it is much harder to extract human dignity and elicit compassion … that is, the lives and deaths of people on the teetering edge of humanity … Kennedy manages to bless these unpromising materials by authorial intrusion, and his methods are lyricism and metaphor … Along with considerable talent, such bold intrusion reveals a high level of confidence about the medium of fiction.

Fanning continues:  “Kennedy charts his course by the lights of his predecessors … He wanted to be surreal in a way Farrell was not, he wanted to be realistic in a way that O’Connor was not, and he wanted to explore different dimensions of Irish-American life.  And so we have the Albany novels, which mix hard, gritty realism with a surreal lyricism of great beauty in the depiction of, among other things, an Irish-American underclass of ruthless criminals, gamblers, and homeless bums, the lowest of the low.”

In his exploration of writing titled First Paragraphs, Donald Newlove wrote of Ironweed that “Kennedy’s power to bring light into dark places and to write tragic dialogue ringing with a Shakespearean blackness strikes me as the happiest art … I, for one, enter the heaven of a writer absolutely on top of his material from the first sound of his voice.  His load is light, every page.  Pure light.  And surely he changes our lives, enriches our understanding of the madness of one drunk in a fellowship of rock-bottom boozers during the Great Depression.  It’s not just historical understanding he gives us. We become Francis Phelan, a deep-witted walking grave, lighted up with family ghosts like fireflies in twilight.”

Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Towers called Ironweed “a kind of fantasia on the strangeness of human destiny, on the mysterious ways in which a life can be transformed and sometimes redeemed. Unlike many modern novelists who are distant from their characters, Kennedy’s fiction exudes compassion … a work of unusual interest, original in its conception, full of energy and color, a splendid addition to the Albany cycle.”

Ironweed is included on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels in English in the 20th century.

Ironweed was published in Cuba, Denmark, France, Iceland, Israel, Korea, Russia and Taiwan.

O ALBANY 1st Edition
O ALBANY 1st Edition

Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels

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O ALBANY 1st Edition
O ALBANY 1st Edition

Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels

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O Albany! (1983)   Nonfiction

Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels (1983)

In the November 2012 Columbia Journalism Review, Stefan Beck reviewed O Albany!, Kennedy’s impressionistic history of his city, 29 years after the book was published.  Beck called the work “a detailed portrait of America in microcosm, and proof that a penetrating eye can turn a one-horse town into a metropolis deserving of its place in posterity … Nothing in Kennedy’s Albany is sentimentalized, trivialized, romanticized, or demonized. He confers dignity on vagrants and prostitutes without turning them into glowing unfortunates.  He can mull the causes and effects of political corruption without assuming the mantle of a thundering reformer.  He was, after all, a reporter before he was a novelist, and the essays in O Albany! are products of a fact-finding mission that transformed into a newspaper position and in turn into a life’s (work).”

“It is easy enough,” wrote Beck, “for a journalist to loathe corruption, even corruption that keeps the peace or keeps the people happy.  It is harder for a novelist.  The journalist Kennedy “[wrote] stories that complicated [Albany Mayor Erastus Corning’s] life.  The novelist Kennedy was delighted when the Mayor approached him to collaborate on a book in which Kennedy would be able to say whatever he liked, as would Corning. The book never came to fruition, but an essay, ‘Erastus: The Million Dollar Smile,’ did. The result is an excellent example of Kennedy’s candid, psychologically astute, and above all sympathetic portraiture. The essay gets to the heart of Kennedy’s essentially novelistic journalism. Whether because he retains some vestigial sense of Original Sin, or simply because he grasps human folly, he is capable of regarding any man as an equal, a potential friend, and certainly a fascinating subject for study—no matter how wicked.”

Beck adds: “If O Albany! is a guide to a mostly vanished place, it is also a blueprint for how other fallen, forgotten cities might be reinvigorated by the right kind of attention … A book cannot save a city, but it can prove that a city is worth saving.”

QUINN'S BOOK
QUINN'S BOOK

The fourth book in the "Albany Cycle" series.

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Quinn's Book
Quinn's Book

Published in England

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Quinn's Book
Quinn's Book

Published in Israel

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QUINN'S BOOK
QUINN'S BOOK

The fourth book in the "Albany Cycle" series.

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Quinn's Book (1988)   Fiction - Albany Cycle

Kennedy continued to expand his open-ended Albany Cycle. While the first three novels in the cycle unfold in a Depression-era setting, the next three explore various periods in the city’s history.  Thomas Flanagan wrote in the New York Review of Books that Quinn’s Book (1988) “reaches out from Albany to an impressionistic nineteenth-century America, a land of slavery and warfare and haunted (rivers)” (Thomas Flanagan, New York Review of Books, 4/25/02) and follows the picaresque adventures of a Phelan ancestor, Daniel Quinn. 

The Boston Globe called the novel a “book of wonders and sweetness, magic and horrors, it immerses itself in the marvelous … Touching and vivid and comic.”

Charles Fanning described Quinn’s Book as “a tour de force of historical fiction driven by a visionary imagination … Quinn’s Book rings freshly because it is the book of a gifted writer who is in love with words—their variousness, power, and capacity to comfort, dazzle, and terrify.  Discovering this love turns out to be the substance of Daniel Quinn’s progress to epiphany as well … Quinn learns to oppose suffering and injustice by observing and chronicling them … Quinn’s Book is a writer’s book, from the thrill of wonder and control that the young boy feels in writing his first sentence, to a journalistic career that culminates in fame as a war correspondent, to the ultimate breakthrough into the heady, open air of fiction … Through the transforming power of his imagination, the novelist turns the typical nineteenth-century, famine-generation plot line into a quest for meaning through art, one that on some level surely stands for his own career.  At the same time, the sheer joy in using words that Quinn discovers is here embodied in Kennedy’s style, in the newly minted nineteenth-century cadences and flourishes that somehow manage to express an authentic awakening to the power of love and (art).” (Charles Fanning, The Irish Voice in America, Lexington:  University Press of Kentucky, 2000, p.352-356.)

Quinn's Book was published in England, France, Germany and Israel.

RIDING THE YELLOW TROLLET CAR
RIDING THE YELLOW TROLLET CAR

A collection of essays, interviews.

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RIDING THE YELLOW TROLLET CAR
RIDING THE YELLOW TROLLET CAR

A collection of essays, interviews.

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Riding the Yellow Trolley Car (1993)   Nonfiction

Riding the Yellow Trolley Car is a collection of essays, interviews (with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Styron, Robert Penn Warren, Louis Armstrong et al.), memoirs, reviews, reportage, liner notes for a Sinatra album, and memoirs on the making of two films, “The Cotton Club,” and “Ironweed.”  Library Journal said of it:  “a great pleasure to read, no matter what the subject.  Another winner from Kennedy: highly recommended.” And Publishers Weekly wrote, “This engaging miscellany of some 80 articles, interviews, and reviews should delight fans of noted novelist Kennedy.  From newspaper pieces printed in his hometown of Albany, N.Y., in the 1950s to more polished essays in national magazines, these selections suggest how Kennedy’s literary voraciousness contributed to the growth of his distinctive, sinuous style.”

In the Dallas Morning News, Norman Oder wrote, “Mr. Kennedy began as a journalist in Albany, and early examples of his craft show him straining toward originality.  Indeed, this book suggests how a myriad of influences—journalism, literature, Albany and Latin America—helped fuse his literary imagination … The writer who emerges here sounds not merely interesting but delightfully genuine.”

Author Robert Friedman reviewed Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, describing the book as a “rich cornucopia of novelist William Kennedy’s nonfiction, and a joyride most of the way … The collection displays Kennedy’s love affair with literature and with subject matter high and low.  It is a look into the wellspring of his literary life, tracing tastes and a stately style that evolved fully in Kennedy’s Albany novels.”