Life after death

Edwin O’Connor’s The Edge of Sadness

Cover: The Edge of Sadness
Cover: The Edge of Sadness

Is there life after death? The death of spirit? The death of one’s social identity? The living death of a priest wounded by his humanity, and shunned by the scandalized parishioners he once counted as family?

This is not a plot ripped from today’s headlines. Rather, it’s the framework for the rich and personal story of Father Hugh Kennedy in Edwin O’Connor’s 1962 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Edge of Sadness.

In an age when one’s parish, was their community, and one’s community was defined by ethnicity, Father Kennedy had it all. Raised by a widowed father in the warm Irish embrace of St. Raymond’s parish, he grew to become the church’s energetic and beloved pastor. Then, battered by personal tragedy and deeply wounded by alcoholism, he lost it all.

Isolated and clinging to recovery, Father Kennedy finds himself assigned to Old St. Paul’s church: a parish as dilapidated as his own spirit, clinging to life in an ethnically-mixed slum. Not an Irish in sight … until old Charlie Carmody, the octogenarian slumlord from Saint Raymond’s, comes for a call.

Some say old Charlie’s looking for an inside track to bulldozing Saint Paul’s and building slum tenements in its place. Or is there something else old Charlie wants? Something he desperately needs? Something he can get from no other priest than Father Hugh Kennedy?

The answer lies in the rich pages of O’Connor’s creation. A work in which the sights, sounds, smells and people of an earlier age come to life. A timeless story that easily could have been written of this generation. An honest work in which a priest is understood to be human. And, in his humanness, he finds life after a living death of tragedy, failure and humiliation.

The Edge of Sadness is a book to be savored, not devoured. Borrow it from your public library, then buy it. Keep it on your bookshelf. There’s enough depth in this book to provide a fresh perspective with each read.

Originally broadcast for BookSpeak on Indiana Public Radio

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