HERMAN MELVILLE probably had it right. It's impossible to write a great work of fiction about the life of a flea. Until now one might have thought it equally impossible to write a lyric work of fiction about the life of a bum. But William Kennedy has done it with a beautifully sorrowful novel.

Kennedy asks us again to confront the mystery of human behavior. And as he illuminates it, we share in one man's struggle to understand his life and to gain control over what's left. Because we do believe what Kennedy tells us about his sockless, wandering alcoholic given to tenderness, violence, and remorse, we see ourselves in the same mirror with him. We're brought to ask the same question Francis Phelan repeats throughout the novel: How did I become the person I am? Ironweed completes the basic transaction of art. We read fiction to find out about ourselves.

Ironweed opens in a graveyard in Albany, New York, as Francis Phelan, Kennedy's boxcar Ulysses, returns to the city of his birth and early manhood, for the first time since abandoning his wife and children 22 years earlier. It's 1938, another winter of destitution, and Francis needs "a couple of jugs and a flop" for the night. Sober because he's broke, Francis has picked up a day's work throwing dirt on fresh graves.

The winds of fate have blown Francis back to Albany. Voices and scenes from the past promise to hold him there again.

Groveling through the cemetery, Francis sees the graves of his parents. And because Francis is 58 and has soaked his brain in booze or because he's Irish and often hurts, the dead speak to him--his mother and father at the start, and assorted gamblers, baseball players, strikebreakers, easy women, hoboes, and petty crooks throughout the novel.

But one grave he crosses has no voice. It's the grave of his infant son. Gerald Michael Phelan died in 1916 of a broken neck. Francis dropped the child while changing a diaper after four beers at Brady's saloon on the way home from work. Standing over the grave he prays "for a repeal of time so that he might hang himself in the coal bin before picking up the child."

What William Kennedy has in mind is to tell two stories at once in Ironweed. One is the gloriously checkered history of Francis Phelan as young lover of the neighbor lady in silk, star of baseball diamonds in Toronto and Dayton, wrathful killer of at least three men, and joyous victim of sin forever on the run. The other is of a newer Francis Phelan emerging during the crucial present of the novel--three days during which Francis moves from shoveling graves to picking rags, loses his Vassar-educated hobo girlfriend and a faithful drinking partner to the ravages of bumming, and finds himself face-to-face in his old house with the wife and children he left. The purpose of Kennedy's intertwining these narrative lines is to see whether he and we can locate a center around which order can be made of Francis' life. But none holds. What we see is the infinite complexity of personality, the affect of accident, and the awesome force of emotion on our lives.

At first it seems to Francis, and to us, that he has been on the run because in 1901 at the carbarns where he worked he hurled a rock at a strikebreaker and killed him. But we learn he went uncharged. Later still, we learn he abandoned his family every spring for 15 years thereafter to play baseball.

Then it seems Francis has been running from another dead man who talks to him. In Chicago he picked up and swung a drunken bum into a bridge abutment, leaving him "bloody, insensible, leaking, and instantly dead." Rowdy Dick Doolan had tried to cut off Francis' feet with a meat cleaver to get his shoes. In the exchange Francis lost two-thirds of a finger, part of his nose, and felt the resurgent emotion of his life: "The compulsion to flight, the most familiar notion, after the desire not to aspire, that he had ever entertained."

But this killing followed the death of his infant son and after Francis ran away from home. It cannot account for "the fugitive thrust that had come to be so much a part of his own spirit." And neither can responsibility for the child dropped to his death from Francis' arms. It turns out no one ever knew the truth. His wife remained silent, and never blamed him.

Finally, as Francis totters between return to the family he has rediscovered and disappearance into another tarpaper jungle, he asserts "his own private wisdom and purpose." Indeed, he was stronger, more violent, and "more in love with the fugitive dance" than others. But his engine has been guilt:

"He had fled the folks because he was too profane a being to live among them; he had humbled himself willfully through the years to counter a fearful pride in his own ability to manufacture the glory from which grace would flow. What he was was, yes, a warrior, protecting a belief that no man could ever articulate, especially himself; but somehow it involved protecting saints from sinners, protecting the living from the dead. And a warrior, he was certain, was not a victim. Never a victim.

"In the deepest part of himself that could draw an unutterable conclusion, he told himself: My guilt is all that I have left. If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing, been nothing."

Kennedy's tactic is to keep his plot and Francis Phelan's fate open to all possibilities. Francis may be making another freight-car voyage--after still another killing-- at the end of Ironweed. Or he may be dreaming it all from an upstairs room in the old house at Albany, his forgiving Annie at his side once again. Watch out when Kennedy turns to the subjunctive or unreels 564-word sentences.

It's uncertain. It's unimportant. The man is real. We'll probably see him again in another of William Kennedy's novels about Albany and American social erosion. What is important is that Francis Phelan is an authentic U.S. antihero, uniquely and romantically our own, whether in quest of self, commitment to violence, or refusal to give up.

Kennedy sometimes thinks he is a poet when he really needs more narrative energy. He starts stories he can't finish, like the one with Francis as the hero of a proletarian play. But he feels our country. His people are our family--confusing, funny, tortured, and usually on the make. With Legs (1975), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), starring Francis's gambler son, and now with Ironweed, William Kennedy is making American literature.

Legs and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game have been reissued as Penguin paperpacks, $5.95 each.