"One of the best novels of all time" - Hell yes. Talk about a no-brainer. Why was this number 92 on the list? It should be much higher.
My friend Ed and I met in college, and we used to obsess about the various bums we encountered in Urbana. There were "The McDonalds Bum", the "Can you buy my breakfast bum", and "The maniac bum" among others. Behind all the talks we've had about them, the underlying question, the fascination for me has been - how does a normal person wind up being one of those people? Some of them, like the McDonalds Bum, were mentally ill. Some, maybe most, I don't know, were born into that kind of poverty, and grew up that way. But I'm sure that there are many children, as beautiful and smart as my daughter, or as privileged as I was, who grow up and wind up trying to get a cot at a shelter. I can't wrap my mind around it. And Ironweed is all about that.
It's the story of Francis, a bum, and his long-time girlfriend Helen, another bum, and their acquaintances, all bums. There are ghosts that follow Francis around, mostly people he's killed directly or indirectly. It isn't a big melodramatic thing, the ghosts are described in the same way as the living characters.
Kennedy describes the most shocking things as matter-of-factly as he does the ghosts. At one point it is freezing cold, and night is falling. Francis and Helen need a place to stay. Francis takes Helen to a car with a bum sleeping in the back seat and the car's owner sleeping in the front seat. He gets her a spot in the front seat. She doesn't want to go in, because she is afraid the driver will expect her to have sex with him. Francis assures her she won't, and she believes him. And he gets her a spot in the car. He was lying about her not having to have sex with the driver, and she was lying about believing him. But it was freezing cold out. And Francis still had to find a place for him to stay.
The climax of this book takes place in the first few pages. Francis has a short-term job working at a graveyard, and the grave of his son is there. The son he dropped when he was a week old,causing his death. Having not confronted the reality of his past for years, he goes to visit the grave, and there we are - Francis's past comes back to him. And ladies and gentlemen, we now have Story.
Did I relate to these people? It seems presumptuous for me to say "yes." I'm not homeless, I'm not an alcoholic, I'm not hungry. But there are people I love, there are actions I regret, and there are people I miss. I had no problem getting involved in this world, and I don't think it's because I'm a candy-ass liberal, I think it is because William Kennedy wrote one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
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