by William Kennedy

Paperback, 1988

Call number




Penguin Books (1988), Edition: First Edition


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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member atheist_goat
Take Denis Johnson's characters, make them older, put them into Depression-era Albany, and go nuts. If you like to read about drunk broken people, this is for you. If you don't, well, by the end almost everyone is dead.
LibraryThing member bastet
I have to saw I had to read this book for a fiction-writing class and I was not nuts about it when reading it. The sadness, the pervasive coldness of the setting, even the grime the people must endure all set me off. But the teacher showed us how Kennedy made the words and scenes glow.
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.… (more)
LibraryThing member poetontheone
This book had been crying out to me from the shelf ever since I put down Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, the precursor to this book in Kennedy's Albany Cycle, so I took it down and read it at last. Gone is the political scandal of the second book, replaced by raw emotional debt that is a perfect compliment to Kennedy's unmistakable narrative voice, which contorts in turns of the everyman and the seer.

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.
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LibraryThing member NoLongerAtEase
A profound redemption novel. Through a combination of poor choices and terrible luck the protagonists end up sleeping in the weeds and trading illicit sexual favors for food and shelter, yet Kennedy reminds us that "everyone was someone once" and that even the those in the dregs can yet become someone once more.
LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
This felt like John Steinbeck + Midnight Cowboy + Bukowski. Full of human tragedy.
LibraryThing member browner56
In the town where I live, as in so many cities across the country, there are a lot of homeless people who roam the streets with nowhere to go. I would like to say that I think seriously about their plights, but I don’t suppose that I really do. In fact, aside from offering an occasional handout, I seldom engage these men and women in any meaningful way. Who are they and how did they wind up where they are? Are their situations the result of bad luck or bad choices (or maybe both)? Are their plights temporary or will they spend the rest of their lives enduring their present conditions? Those are questions to which I don’t have answers, mainly because I have never bothered to ask them in the first place.

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.
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LibraryThing member kant1066
Though it’s just been a few months since I read this wonderful book, I find myself barely able to remember what actually happened in it. I do remember actually laying in bed at night and crying during several passages, though, and thinking that it was one of the best things that I had read in a long time. The fiction that I’ve been randomly pulling off my shelves has been really good to me this year.

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.
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LibraryThing member technodiabla
This is a great book. Much of the story is pretty harsh, cruel, even disgusting, but there's heart in it too. The warmth and hope Francis finds after all the suffering and heartbreak is so touching. It says so much about the human condition (and how quickly it can change for anyone), and the love of family. Most readers really feel for Francis by the end-- but most of those same readers would not give him the time of day (much less a dime) if we passed him on the street. Simply highlighting this, and showing us the human side of the street bum, earned Kennedy the Pulitzer in my opinion.… (more)
LibraryThing member CosmicBullet
Most of us live a long way from life, which is to say: we live sheltered from the raw edge of death. We have affluence, routine, warm beds, full bellies, idealistic lives and a drastically softened relationship with what some might call 'truth.' The characters in William Kennedy's 'Ironweed' are not saints, they are not Rousseau's noble wild innocents, they are no more deserving of love or hatred than anyone else. They may be bums and dregs of society, but there is something truthful about them, something vital and hard to pin down. I think that the circumstances of hardship have an amplifying effect on character. The same pettiness, the same nobility that we are all capable of, becomes writ large in Kennedy's work. Francis Phelan is a bum, down on his luck, struggling for each meal and a warm place to sleep out of the Albany wind. He lies, steals, kills, shows compassion, remorse, and a fierce resistance to death. But his character partakes of a kind of real truthfulness that is hard to ignore. I think perhaps that it is really the closeness of death, the lack of cushion between the living and the dying (for in this book some poor soul is always dying – without much fanfare) that creates an edgy quality to the events in this novel that is addictive. You want to throw down the book at times and cry: 'there, but for the grace of God go I . . . ' A great read, an enjoyable tale, and a superb blending of tragedy, comedy and whimsy. And if we look hard enough, we may see ourselves after all.… (more)
LibraryThing member booksandwine
Wow. Ironweed certain pulls some emotional punches. Francis Phelan is an alcoholic bum. He left his family after an unfortunate accident which was pretty much all his fault, and now sleeps among the weeds. He is haunted by the ghosts of his past, which can become confusing as one minute someone is dead, then they are talking to Francis. He's hallucinating.Reading this book takes work, as some of it is written in stream-of-concious style, but once the confusion has past, Kennedy's prose reads like poetry. Kennedy presents Francis's regrets and life laments in such a stunning way. For instance, "No way for Francis to ever get a real good look past the sunset, for he's the kind of fella just kept runnin' when things went bust; never had the time to stop anyplace easy just to die." This book left me feeling like a shell, just emotionally drained. It's strange, but I like when a book can do that to me. I mean usually when I set a book down, I think hmmm that was good, what shall I read next? I don't pause to continue thinking about the characters. Ironweed, however, will haunt me.… (more)
LibraryThing member lsh63
Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize in 1984, and is the third book in a series of the story of Francis Phelan.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member santhony
At 225 pages (a short 225 pages at that, with large type), this Pulitzer Prize winner can best be classified as a novella. It can be easily read in one sitting. Part of a series of short novels from the same era and featuring many of the same characters, it is the tale of a down and out, former baseball player, Francis Phelan, who turned to drink after the death of his infant son. Set in the depths of the Great Depression, the imagery and descriptive writing is excellent.

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.
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LibraryThing member realbigcat
Having won the Pu;itzer prize you can pretty much bet that it's a good work of literature. I found it a little hard to get into but once I did I found it a very good read. It's a some what dark story of events that turn someone into a "bum." Now more politically correct to say homeless person. Kennedy spledidly crafts the tale of Francis Phelan and his bum friends. It's a hard life as one can imagine and it should make everyone that is able to read this book to be thankful for what they have. Kennedy 's book is well worth the read and deserving of all it's accolades.… (more)
LibraryThing member pjlane31
The Book is simply about forgiveness and love . you can always go home. easily in my top 5 books I have ever read and possibly the best . I stood on Pearl St in Albany on a cold march day a year after i read it and could see in my mind Francis shuffling up the street .
LibraryThing member JosephJ
This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel imparts the tale of Francis Phelan, an ex-big-league ballplayer and homeless gravedigger, upon the reader. While it appears not much happens between the covers of this book, there is a tremendous amount of life on these pages. Kennedy’s greatest lesson to young writers like myself is the intimacy with the city of Albany that he is able to grant the reader. In this story, the geography of town is as elemental to the story as the characters are. Albany confines as well as brings people, especially family, together.… (more)
LibraryThing member hjsesq
I had never read anything by William Kennedy before, and after reading Ironweed, intend to make it my business to read other things he has written. Even though this book was first published in 1979 and it dealt with life in the 1930’s, it was as if it was dealing the world today. Aside from that however, the author gives us as the main character, Francis Phelan, a good man yet one consumed a feeling of guilt perhaps unjustifiably. Francis Phelan was a “bum”, a person we would call today homeless. He was also an alcoholic, seeming driven into this state by guilty feelings, but one with tender feelings, able to demonstrate acts of love for friends and strangers while putting his own health and life at the risk.

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.
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LibraryThing member kattepusen
I came across an old ear-marked version of this book in one of my favorite thrift stores last week, and all I knew was that there was a movie made from this book... And then a whole new world was presented to me - this is one of the most engaging novels I have read in a long time! William Kennedy's realist Albany drama about the humanity behind bum-dom is vibrant, humorous, grotesque and ultimately unforgetable...

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.

Highly recommended!
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LibraryThing member Hagelstein
Francis Phelan is a bum from Albany, New York. He carries guilt, shame, and death wherever he goes. A former professional baseball player, Francis abandoned his family after he dropped his infant son by accident and killed him. He ran for years, took to drink, and finally returned to Albany, but avoided his cast-away family, reduced to asking himself "that enduring question: How do I get through the next twenty minutes."

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.
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LibraryThing member byronemerson
When words put their hands on my face, force me to look at them, inject their intensity into my eyes, my veins, and leave me exhausted when I look away, I know that the reading experience was essential, important, real. That happened to me repeatedly as I read this book. I ended loving the characters, or wanting to love the characters despite their unlovability. Surely I will lie awake and imagine the could-of-beens in their lives, even though Kennedy's characters accepted their fates, willingly or not.… (more)
LibraryThing member juniperSun
A powerful look inside someone else's head. Frank has been a bum, left his family without a word, for over 30 years. Now he's back in town, wandering with other indigents, eating at a mission & looking for an abandoned building to sleep in, and overpowered by flashbacks of his life, the fights he's had, his glory days as a ball player, his role in a worker's strike.
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 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)
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LibraryThing member soylentgreen23
It took me a while to get into this one, and had it not been a present from a friend I may well have given up on it. However, get yourself used to the writing style and you'll find that this is a book that rewards your patience.
LibraryThing member DinoReader
A very interesting read; it probably does as good a job of presenting the mind of a down and outer coping with some mental problems as anything I've seen. My complaint would be that I could not connect with the characters on an emotional level. That could be my fault but I think the reason was because the book was written "too well", the writing is absolutely top notch and near perfect in every manner from sentence structure to novel structure but it is emotionally flat. Anyway, I recommend it as a read, I mean, it won the Pulitzer Prize; regardless, I wished it showed a little more fire.… (more)
LibraryThing member andyray
This was required reading for modern fiction at UCF circa 1988. I would not have picked this to read otherwise. It is, quite simply, a story of life on the streets, and it is well-written, but it is not either redeptive nor does it promote much positive vibes, if you will. I suspect those who have never lived at all on the street in the New York winter could empathize with Francis Phelan's life there in the Albany of 1938. Freezing to death from passing oiut drunk was one of the ways one died there. Such was the same all over New York state. I give it a five for Kennedy's wonderful job in taking us into Phelan's world, but I'm damned glad I'm just visiting it for the length of this novel. Been there. Done that. Have the teeshirt.… (more)
LibraryThing member dbsovereign
A sort of rap novel. Kennedy's unfolds as the poetic story of a schizophrenic drifter who returns to his hometown - a tale of has-beens and might-bes.
LibraryThing member JBreedlove
Almost a great book. The lives of the destitute in Albany, NY during the Depression. Insights to the hardness and humanity of these lives with tantalizing references to an earlier different pre-Civil War America. Well written but occasionally slow.
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