Wednesday, March 30, 2016

William Kennedy

I must admit: William Kennedy was not on my literary radar until last week when I picked up his short novel Ironweed which was published only a few months before being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1984.

Let me start my saying: I'm not convinced. There are parts of Ironweed - which tells the story of a gang of homeless men in Albany - that certainly resonated, and that I felt were well done, both in terms of style and content. I mean, it's a victory in itself to bring Albany to life, and Kennedy succeeds in doing that. 

But I'm not sure that Kennedy does enough in this novel to fully articulate the sense of decline associated with his characters. And more: the sense of regret and loss. These, too, are not probed with the detail I thought they warranted. 

Kennedy's main character - Francis - used to be a ballplayer. OK - I'll believe that. But it's never made clear how and why he falls from his pedestal. It's further unclear - and I think this is the most frustrating part - why he can't climb back up. 

Sure, there's drinking here, and there's meandering around the streets, looking for trouble, too. But Francis seems to me to be sufficiently clairvoyant, and I wasn't sure what stopped him from reaching - once more - for a world beyond destitution. Why is his mind, as Kennedy writes, "devoid of ideas"?

For me, Ironweed was somewhere between John Steinbeck and William Maxwell: there's a tough, rugged quality to Kennedy's writing, and there's a certain proximity - I suppose you could say - to the earth. But unlike Maxwell, especially, Kennedy doesn't fully convince: he doesn't convince his readership to care about Francis, and he doesn't convince his readership to believe the story that's being told.

Kennedy comes close - don't get me wrong. But ultimately, as I made my way through the novel, I wondered whether he'd constructed a flawed hero in Francis, or simply a character full of flaws. 

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