Francis Phelan was not always a bum. As a young man, he was an excellent athlete who played professional baseball for the Washington Senators. He lost some fingers in a knife fight, which cost him his baseball career. And when his infant son Gerald died after Francis accidentally dropped him, Francis ran away to live on the streets.

William Kennedy's 1983 novel "Ironweed" picks up Phelan in middle age when he returns to his hometown of Albany. He drinks, sleeps in alleys and fields, comforts his sick sometimes-girlfriend Helen, and tries to find what little work is available during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The ghosts of people who have died in his life continue to haunt Francis. Francis is responsible for some of the deaths.

Kennedy's novel explores poverty and mental health issues that often accompany homelessness. Phelan's fall is a tragic one, but not an isolated story.

The narrative is often nonlinear, with the author switching between the present and the memories of Francis and other characters. Phelan's visions of dead people sometimes make distinguishing between reality and fantasy difficult.

But Kennedy's writing makes the effort worthwhile.

Others have forgiven Francis for his sins, but Francis struggles to forgive himself.