Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Appeal of Villainy

Marcus Gorman leads a pretty dull life until he meets Jack Diamond. In fact, Marcus decides to take on Jack as a client just after realizes how much his life could use excitement. Not particularly interested in putting his own life in danger (Marcus refuses to smuggle jewels for Jack and becomes nervous when Jack informs him that he is taking Marcus along for a beer run), Marcus feels a vicarious thrill when he hangs out with Jack, one of the country's most notorious gangsters. Marcus loves shooting Jack's machine gun, enchanted by the gun's lethal power. He loves looking at Jack's wife and girlfriend. Eventually, he seduces and sleeps with anonymous women, just as Jack does. Marcus gets a homoerotic thrill from Jack, too. Jack's immense energy attracts those around him. Kiki experiences a certain amount of sexual satisfaction just by hanging around Jack. She relishes the attention she gets just for being Jack's sex object. Being Jack's girlfriend makes Kiki more famous than her dancing ability ever could. Both Marcus and Kiki are so drawn to Jack's villainy that even if they consider leaving him, they always come back to him in the end. Kiki nearly witnesses Jack's bloody demise, but remains true. Marcus hears gruesome stories of Jack's violent mob tactics, but does not leave him. Alice, despite her disapproval of Jack, enjoys some of his villainous glow. The fact that everyone stays with Jack shows how thrilling it is to be near him and to soak up his badness.

The American Dream

In one sense, Jack embodies the man who has achieved the American Dream. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby, Jack comes from nothing and becomes a rich, successful man. Like the protagonist of a Horatio Alger novel, he succeeds against the odds, climbing to fame and riches from the bottom of the Philadelphia slums. However, Jack is compared not just to Gatsby and an Alger creation, but to Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle, fictional American legends from upstate New York. Kennedy is suggesting that if Jack partially achieved the American Dream, he is also partially a legend, a fictional creation—and not just in this novel, which is a fictional memoir. The real man, Jack "Legs" Diamond, was mythologized and even created by the men who wrote and talked about him. The press wrote of his success, lies and tall tales built on it, and Jack himself spread the word of his own fulfillment of the American Dream. Jack's achievement of the American Dream is partly a fact, and partly a fiction created by a variety of authors.