Moira Cue is reading and reviewing every Pulitzer Prize winning work of fiction.
William Kennedy's Ironweed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1984, is the story of Francis Phelan, a once-great ball player living life "on the bum." The narrative arc of the novel is bookended with references to the charnal house; Francis begins as a day jobber in a graveyard, visits the grave of his infant son, and is trailed by ghosts until the last page of the book, where his vision of the empyrean is revealed as an inversion of classical mythology.
Ironically, this novel about poverty not only contains some of the most luxurious use of language in contemporary fiction, but also redefines the boundaries of literary realism, infusing the genre with poemy metaphysics cloaked as delusion. The dead are as present as, and more powerful than, the living. Murdered bums wear dapper suits they never could have afforded in life. Francis's dead mother consumes the roots of weeds in a sort of post-mortem fit of pica. Francis's infant son wills his father toward a twisted set of penitent acts.
The experience of reading this book is similar to another Pulitzer winner, The Road. The characters are basically just struggling to survive in an overwhelmingly bleak landscape wherein basic human goodness is an anomaly. Except while the post-apocalyptic vision of The Road is one that might happen, the reality of homelessness is already here. In that sense, Ironweed is far more tragic. (In Los Angeles County, an estimated quarter of a million people are homeless each year. Within the city of Los Angeles, estimates range between approximately 40,000 and 80,000 people homeless on any given night.) While the characters in the Road are victimized by circumstances larger than themselves-an environmental or nuclear disaster on a mass scale-Kennedy's protagonist only initially perceives himself as passive, but comes to acknowledge his own role in his fate, the flaw of cowardice that leads him to seek solace in alcohol or blame his actions on Socialism.
In 1987, Ironweed was adopted for the silver screen, earning Academy Award nominations for Best Actor and Best Actress for leads Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Unlike most adaptations of literature for film, Kennedy also wrote the screenplay, as well as co-writing with Francis Ford Coppola The Cotton Club, released in 1986. Additionally, Kennedy has authored several historical books of non-fiction, plays, and children's stories.
Fiction at its best transforms our sense of time and place, allowing us to leave behind our normal surroundings and temporarily immerse ourselves in another's worldview. In doing so, it makes us more human and less narrow-minded. Ironweed is an amazing book in that it allows us to enter a world that most of us have built barriers, both physical and psychological, to avoid. While I was immersed in reading this book I had the all too familiar experience of passing a bum on the way in to the grocery store-not just some down-on-his luck kind of guy, but someone clearly living by a different rulebook. He gave off a foul odor. I have often felt pity and revulsion comingled in such circumstances. But I found myself really wondering, just as I did with the novel's protagonist, "What's it like for him? Where is he going to sleep tonight? Will he be subjected to violence? Will he make it?" My empathy and compassion had been re-ignited.
The power of this book is its ability to chip away at our blindness and prejudice to a major social problem that each of us fortunate enough to have a home, food, and other comforts could and should do more to solve. Francis Phelan is no saint. He's not even "really" a human being-this is, after all, fiction-but there are real men enough like him, and women like his doomed companion Helen, who endures the unimaginable-that if you read this book you will find it just a little harder to forget, to turn away, or condemn.
© 2011, The Hollywood Sentinel.