‘Ironweed' by William Kennedy
Why it matters
“Ironweed” isn't the first book to find grace in misery, but it is among the best. The 1983 novel, which won Kennedy the 1984 Pulitzer Prize, focuses on Frances Phelan, an alcoholic vagrant who fled home after accidentally killing his infant son. Years have passed, and now he's back. It's 1938. His past is inescapable, and he is haunted by the hallucinated ghosts of those he has hurt. He is joined by Helen, his longtime hobo companion, who has a massive untreated tumor. She is a failed woman living in the gutters, but Kennedy's writing grants her beauty and value. Her death scene is perfect, unforgettable and emotionally devastating. The whole novel makes you cry for all the right reasons.