William Kennedy: Ironweed, and Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes

 

Good writing should be a miracle:  The English language, with no hidden strings, springs or trapdoors, puts you inside another man’s brain and gives you his emotions to feel for yourself.

Ironweed is good writing. Some of it is great writing. It deserves the Pulitzer it received.  But it also left me a little confused because it is so much more powerful than the other volume I’ve read by the same author:

Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes is a short novel with an infuriatingly long title.  The story is cut into a series of episodes.  Each, imaginatively but unfortunately, is separated by the passing of several years:  we encounter the protagonist briefly as a child in Albany, then as a young man in Cuba, then as an older one back in Albany.  Albany is not an exciting town—with due respect to Mr Kennedy, for whom it obviously has appeal—but its excitingness or lack thereof doesn’t really matter:  The same town features to much better effect in Ironweed, without any more excitement of plot, because of the extraordinary visual and lyrical power of the writing.  (Ironweed is a few days in the life of an ex-ballplayer Albany bum:  a story of no special interest which Kennedy tells with exceptional power.)

Kennedy is an unusual author—he has eyes and ears.  Usually an author gets along with one or the other;  only the best can match absolute visual clarity with the boxing-ring beauty of good rhythm.  Some of the paragraphs in Ironweed hit you like a one-two punch.  In Chango, there were plenty of passages that almost got there, but none that did.  Despite the obvious similarities in visual imagination, similarities in setting, and characters who cross between the two novels, it is not easy to think of them as the work of the same author.

Chango follows a story just long enough to get you interested (not fascinated, but plenty curious) and then hits fast-forward and picks up a new story in a later decade.  The stories are part of a continuous narrative about one man and one woman, but there is too much missing in between.  Either Kennedy should have given us the whole lifelong accounting, which would have taken several thousand pages and been intolerable, or he should have chosen one of his focal points (and they are excellent ones) and stuck with that.  His dialogue is superb and, when he introduces Hemingway as a character in Chango, the initially skeptical reader is quickly won over.  I wish Kennedy had gone farther with Hemingway and told us more.  Instead I ended up with 30% of three different novels and a low level of consumer satisfaction.

Ironweed is beautiful and I’ve already read most of the book a second time.  But it is so much freer and fiercer than Chango that it remains unclear who William Kennedy actually is.  I intend reading more of his work and, once I find out, I’ll let you know.

Ironweed‘s Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 8.65/10

Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes’s Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 6.9/10

Ironweed.  Penguin Books, 1988. 240 pages.

Changó’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes.  Penguin Books, 2011.  336 pages.

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