John Langan: The Book I Would Like To Be Buried With…

September 27, 2010 by
Filed under: Bury Me With This Book 

The twenty-ninth Bury Me With features an author who has risen up the ranks of ghosty story-telling this last couple of years, John Langan

200px-IronweedNovel“Buried in Albany. How appropriate that the book I’d like to have tucked inside my coffin with me begins with a ride in the back of a truck into a cemetery. William Kennedy’s Ironweed (1983) starts with its protagonist, Francis Phelan, shoveling dirt in St. Agnes Cemetery, outside Albany, NY, to pay off a debt. As Kennedy presents it, the cemetery is a place whose residents are aware of their visitors and can communicate with them silently; it’s a secular version of Dante (a quote from whose Purgatorio opens the novel). At the cemetery, Francis finds the grave of his infant son, Gerald, whose death he caused when he dropped the boy. Shame and guilt caused Francis to flee his action and his family, and he’s spent the decades since Gerald’s death as a wanderer, hopping trains, working odd jobs here and there, inevitably circling back to Albany before once more bolting from the site of his great failure. In front of Gerald’s grave, Francis begins to face up to his past, and his dead son places an obligation on him:  to return home to the family he abandoned.

What follows is an odyssey geographical and temporal across Albany during Halloween weekend of 1938. As Francis voyages ever-closer to his home and family, he encounters the literal ghosts of his own and the city’s past. Along the way, Kennedy paints a vivid portrait of a small American city caught in the coils of the Great Depression, and particularly of its underside and -class. In addition to Francis, the novel focuses on Helen Archer, the woman who has been his sometime companion during his years on the bum, and her story serves as a counterpoint to his. The novel’s cast of supporting characters, including Rudy, Francis’s mentally-challenged companion, and Roskam the rag man, are vivid and memorable. It isn’t giving too much away to say that Francis does eventually arrive home, and that his reunion with his family manages to achieve real emotional resonance while eschewing sentimentality.

William Kennedy’s fourth published novel, the third in his Albany cycle, Ironweed was rejected by every major publisher who considered it; in fact, it took the intervention of Kennedy’s old writing teacher, Saul Bellow, essentially to force its publication. Once it was in print, however, it won the Pulitzer Prize. While Kennedy’s claims for the book have been modest, it’s clear he’s channeling all sorts of influences in it, from Joyce to Steinbeck to Bellow, with figures such as Homer and Dante looming in the background. It’s the work of an author going for broke, putting everything on the line to write the book of his life.

In the interests of honesty, I should add that I’m a bit surprised that Ironweed should be my choice for a book with which to be interred. It was the first book that came to mind when I received the e-mail question, and it remained at the forefront of my consideration while I debated my answer. Although I contemplated works by Stephen King, Peter Straub, Henry James, Flannery O’Connor, and Charles Dickens – and although these writers have meant and continue to mean a great deal to me as a writer – there’s something about Ironweed that gave it pride of place in my eventual decision. Maybe it’s the book’s concern with redemption, with facing up to the sins of the past. Maybe it’s the book’s phantasmagorical evocation of a place thick with history. Maybe it’s Francis Phelan, its protagonist and even hero, a former baseball player winding his long, circuitous way back home.”


John LanganAbout John Langan:

John Langan’s first novel, House of Windows, has just been released in trade paperback by Night Shade Books.  He lives in upstate New York with his wife, son, and a quartet of frogs.


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