This tale, set during the Depression, tells about Francis Phelan and other inhabitants of skid row in Albany, New York. Ironweed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, is the best-known of William Kennedy's three Albany-based novels. Francis Phelan, ex-ballplayer, part-time gravedigger, full-time drunk, has hit bottom. Years ago he left Albany in a hurry after killing a scab during a trolley workers' strike; he ran away again after accidentally - and fatally - dropping his infant son. Now, in 1938, Francis is back in town, roaming the old familiar streets with his hobo pal, Helen, trying to make peace with the ghosts of the past and the present. Chronicles the final wanderings of a one-time ballplayer turned down-and-out murderer.
I'm still not a fan and can't see reading anything else he's done, but I have to admit it's masterfully written.
Francis Phelan is a down and out boozer and bum plagued by guilt and ghosts, and his character owns the focus of the narrative, and this works well because this character is fascinating and easy to sympathize with, if not a pretty picture. An overall stronger narrative than its predecessor, and probably Kennedy's masterwork. A touching story ripe with realism, sadness, humor, and poetry. Just as with the previous book, I am aching for more.
In Ironweed, William Kennedy fills in the details of one such man’s journey. Francis Phelan, the hero of this deeply affecting novel, has been on the run his whole life, first from an abusive mother and then to follow his career as a professional baseball player, until he finally leaves his home and family for good after a tragic accident for which he takes responsibility. Now, at 58, Francis has grown weary of the road and is trying to find his way back in his hometown of Albany, New York. However, he has descended so far—he has even begun having alcohol-induced hallucinations in which he sees the ghosts of long-dead friends and enemies—that he really has no idea of how, or even if, he can do it.
Set in the late fall of 1938, Ironweed is a spare and unflinching look at the often tragic lives of people who find themselves “on the bum”. To be sure, this is a grim tale, replete with considerable fear, sorrow, and violence, but with very little hope. However, it is also a story that is beautifully told and one that perfectly captures one man’s perspective on the challenges of trying to survive on the streets in Depression-era America. In Francis, the author has created one of the more complex and memorable characters I’ve encountered: strong but vulnerable, violent yet tender and thoughtful, disciplined but occasionally spontaneous. There is little in this novel that will make the reader feel good, but there is much to savor nonetheless, mainly because Kennedy has bothered to ask the right questions.
This is part of William Kennedy’s multi-volume Albany Trilogy, which would now be better-named the Albany Cycle. The subject matter didn’t immediately speak to me, and sounded depressing (which it is). A Depression-era man named Francis Phelan lives in Albany, New York who leaves his family in shame after accidentally dropping and killing his infant son, and has decided to live on the streets. The rest of the novel is about meeting characters from his past, both alive and dead. In fact, one of the major themes is summed up by Kennedy in the first extraordinarily beautiful paragraph of the book:
“Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods. The truck was suddenly surrounded by fields of monuments and cenotaphs of kindred design and striking size, all guarding the privileged dead. But the truck moved on and the limits of mere privilege became visible, for here now came the acres of truly prestigious death: illustrious men and women, captains of life without their diamonds, furs, carriages, and limousines, but buried in pomp and glory, vaulted in great tombs built like heavenly safe deposit boxes, or parts of the Acropolis. And ah yes, here too, inevitably, came the flowing masses, row upon row of them under simple headstones and simpler crosses. Here was the neighborhood of the Phelans.” I was unable to put it down after those few sentences.
The dead have a life uniquely their own, which they sometimes use to haunt the living. In fact, some of the major characters in the novel are dead.
James Atlas has said that “his [Kennedy’s] cycle of Albany novels is one of the great resurrections of place in our literature.” I can’t help but agree. Robert Towers, in the New York Times Book Review, said it’s “a kind of fantasia on the strangeness of human destiny, on the mysterious ways in which a life can be transformed and sometimes redeemed.” Sometimes, despite all the mulling I do over what I read, I simply have to leave it to people who have the words – better words than I have, certainly.
This is a touching story of Francis Phelan's attempt to conquer the demons of his past while also dealing with his homelessness and drinking.
Francis is an ex-ball player who has caused the death of others on more than one occasion. First, by killing a scab during a worker's strike, then tragically by accidentally, but fatally killing his infant son by dropping him when he went to change his diaper. Francis is flawed, but tugs at your heartstrings as he looks out for his other homeless companions and has the courage to go and see his wife, daughter and son after being away from them for over 20 years. This is a very emotional and realistic portrayal of how a person can find themselves in bad situations but have goodness in their hearts.
Throughout the novel, Francis is beset by flashbacks and visits from ghosts of his checkered past, many of whom met their ends as a result of Francis’s actions. A former streetcar conductor, with a wife and family, Francis fled his home in Albany following his murder of a strike breaking scab. A decade later, he returns to Albany, living on the streets as a “bum”, with his common law wife, Helen, and a ragged collection of homeless winos.
This is a very well written, powerful story. I do wonder, however, if many of the superlatives being accorded this short work are because it is a Pulitzer winner and not the other way around. I suspect that given this book to peruse, without awareness that it won the Pulitzer, most would acknowledge that it is a nice, little six hour read. That is pretty much how I found it.
He presents questions to us that are difficult to answer, and if we can, we may not be happy with the answers we come up with.
When two of his friends died within a short span of time, “He knew that right now both Rudy and Helen had far more insight into his being than he himself ever had, or would have, into either of theirs.”
That type of insight itself helps define Francis and the substance of the book.
If you have seen the movie, you are at a loss - even though the movie is not bad. However, the film is such a sanitized Hollywood version of the hard-core images presented to us in the text - the feelings, the thoughts, the humor, the smells, and the alternate realities of the two main characters can only really be felt through the clenching prose.
He is principled, caring and still has a family and wife that loves him and would take him back with no questions, but Francis carries the burden of the doomed. William Kennedy doesn't wrap the story up neatly, but you can't envision it ending well for Francis.
I saw the movie before I read this. As I read, the text brought up images from the powerful movie, increasing my connection with the text. Of course many of the thoughts were not filmed, and I don't remember any of the scenes with Katrina. The movie gave the impression that the "ghosts" he was seeing were a result of DT's, but reading the book it seemed just as possible that they were a product of his guilt, his need to stop running and face what he did. The ending of the novel is pretty ambiguous: will he really make a change, or are his thoughts those of a dying man?
"I believe we die when we can't stand it anymore. I believe we stand as much as we can and then we die when we can..." (p. 65)
"Flight again...in order to assert the one talent ...that let him dance on the earth to the din of brass bands..." (p. 147)
"if he was ever to survive, it would be ...with a clear head and a steady eye for the truth: for the guilt he felt was not worth the dying...The trick was to live, to beat...that fateful chaos and show them all what a man can do to set things right, once he sets hi mind to it." (p. 207)