Marcus Gorman, an Albany lawyer, converses with three old friends, Packy Delaney, Flossie, and Tipper Kelley. Packy has only four teeth left, and his legs are swollen from elephantiasis. Flossie is an old, decrepit chain- smoker. Tipper is still a dapper newsman dressed in a 1948 double-breasted suit. Marcus says that he does not think that Jack Diamond, the legendary New York gangster, is really dead. His companions seem to think he is nuts: Diamond died decades ago. Tipper launches into a story about how he and a fellow reporter, Bones McDowell, were the first people on the scene of Jack's murder. Bones tripped and fell over the body, landing on Jack's corpse. Packy says Tipper never saw the corpse, but she herself saw the autopsy and says there were thirty-nine bullet holes in his body. Marcus thinks to himself that Packy is getting senile, because he also remembers the autopsy. Jack's face was intact, but the back of his head had been blown away by three soft-nosed .38-caliber bullets.
Marcus begins reminiscing about Jack, who he had come to admire as one of the true new Irish Americans, someone who shot his way to fame and fortune, "Horatio Alger out of Finn McCool and Jesse James." Jack Diamond, the founder of the first modern gang, was almost as famous as Charlie Lindbergh. He was the darling of every tabloid. Diamond was an authentic original, and Marcus explains he has decided, four and half decades after Diamond's death, to compose an original epitaph, this book.
Marcus has chosen to meet Packy, Tipper, and Flossie at the Kenmore, because in the 1920s and 1930s the bar was the number one nightclub between New York and Canada. If Jack's ghost was anywhere, it was there. Marcus called Flossie first, because years ago they had had a fling. She was a beautiful hooker, like a canary, with blond hair. Flossie had arranged for Tipper to meet with them, and now they all sit looking at two David Lithgow murals, one depicting a foxhunt and the other depicting the hunters' cocktail celebration after the hunt. Marcus tells his friends that he is writing about Jack, and so they tell him stories and tall tales about him. Marcus likes the lies best. He recalls a summer day in 1930 when he was at the library of the Knights of Columbus, two blocks up from the Kenmore. He was waiting to play pinochle, reading Rabelais, thinking that his life was boring, and he decided then and there to accept the Sunday dinner invitation Jack Diamond had extended to him that morning.
The first chapter of Legs points to several themes that will be important throughout the novel. First, Marcus refers to Jack as an Irish-American hero, comparing him to Finn McCool and Jesse James. Jack grew up in a poor Irish- American family in Philadelphia, and was raised to be a devout Catholic. As a result, Jack's Catholic upbringing sometimes makes him regret his corrupt lifestyle. Finn McCool is a legendary hero of Old Ireland, a mythological giant. Jesse James is an outlaw of the American Old West. Marcus suggests that Jack is a blend of Irish-American, myth, and outlaw.
Marcus states that his favorite stories about Jack are usually the lies, the tall tales. This novel consists partly of anecdotes people have told Marcus over the years, stories that may or may not be true. In this chapter, for example, Tipper, Flossie, and Marcus all disagree about the manner in which Jack was killed. Marcus tells his story at a distance of forty-five years, a gap that emphasizes his picture of Jack as a mythical hero of a bygone era. The novel, with its stories and memories of Jack, will represent a continuation of Jack's life, allowing him to live in print. Even in his lifetime, Jack's myth was at least as important as his actual existence, and the persistence of this myth after his death is a kind of life after death.
While he was alive, Jack often struggled to play down some of the wilder aspects of his legend, especially when he got in trouble with the law. Marcus writes this work partially to produce an authentic account of Jack's life. Marcus seems to feel that Jack deserves to have his record set straight; he also seems eager to puff himself up and brag about the gangster exploits he shared in Jack's company. Marcus says he joined Jack because his humdrum life needed spicing up. Part of Jack's intrigue is his lawless violence, the kind typified by Jack's spiritual forebear, Jesse James. Many of Jack's closest companions stick with him because of their interest in this dangerous aspect of his persona.