Author: William Kennedy
Description: Francis Phelan is pretty much unapologetically a bum, who spends pretty much any money he can get his hands on to take his next drink. Francis wasn’t always this way, though. He had a career as a promising baseball player—he shared the field with Ty Cobb. He had a loving wife and family. An unfortunate accident cost him a finger—and his baseball career. Then he was the cause of his baby’s death. The Depression meant jobs were scarce and fought over, and Francis caused another death in a labor dispute. Francis misses his family, but believes that they are better off without him; he now has a partnership with Helen, who once had a promising career as a concert pianist. In spite of the difficulty of finding food, warmth, and a place to sleep, Francis maintains some dignity and in his way, helps those who share his plight to maintain some self-respect, if it is in his power.
Plot: The book opens as Francis visits, for the first time, the grave of the baby son he lost. The ghosts of his past are never too distant as he looks back on everything that went wrong in his life, while at the same time negotiating life on the streets. Francis warily circles the neighborhoods of his past, unsure about the welcome he might receive, but drawn to see his family again.
Characters: In Francis Phelan, Kennedy has drawn a nearly perfect character study. Flawed by alcoholism and a quick and violent temper, yet loving and protective of those for whom he cares, Francis tries to maintain an existence to which every day is a challenge just to stay alive. Helen too is bedraggled and blowsy, but maintains the vestiges of the woman she used to be in a way that makes her worthy of Francis’ love. Even the secondary characters—the junk man, the neighbors of Francis’ youth, the other inhabitants of the streets and flophouses, are pitch perfect.
Writing style: Spare—the book is short for a novel—but beautifully written. Somehow the sordid conditions of Francis’ lifestyle are ever-present, yet transcended.
Audience: This book is a Pulitzer winner—it’s literary fiction, but definitely accessible to anyone who might want to read it.
Wrap-up: I never had the desire to read this book because Jack Nicholson starred in the movie, and I have a revulsion toward any movie or connection with Jack Nicholson. Once I got started in the book, though, Jack faded away to be replaced by the real Francis Phelan who has nothing to do with Jack. This was a beautiful book that I loved reading. 5/5*