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Ironweed (The Albany Cycle #3)

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  11,006 ratings  ·  427 reviews
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 peac

208 pages
Published (first published 1983)
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Alan Gongora Thanks! Yeah, half-way through and loving it. Movie is in my future as well. Thanks Kendra. …moreThanks! Yeah, half-way through and loving it. Movie is in my future as well. Thanks Kendra. (less)
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37th out of 69 books — 84 voters
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Community Reviews

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Treasure of the Rubbermaids 19: Big Rock Candy Mountain

The on-going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years. Thanks to my father dumping them back on me, I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depths.

Francis Phelan is living the romantic life of a hobo during the Great Depression. Drifting from town to town by hopping trains and with n
Kelly (and the Book Boar)
Find all of my reviews at:

“Katie bar the door. Too wet to plow.”

Commercial Photography

Okay, since I’m a robot that’s a bit of a fabrication. I did, however, get a little choked up and that’s pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to me bawling.

Francis has spent his entire life running . . .

“Running bases after the crack of the bat, running from accusation, running from the calumny of men and women, running from family, from bondage, from destitution of spirit through ritu
David Johnson
Jun 10, 2010 David Johnson rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Anyone who loved the writing in "A River Runs Through It"
“The dead, they all got eyes.”

I wanted to hate this book. Portions of it are simply offensive. Those portions, however, are significantly outweighed by Kennedy’s ability to create beautiful prose out of objectionable material. There are, no doubt, pages of this book that read like poetry.

The first chapter is a compelling introduction to a character that begs for your revulsion, receiving instead your compassion. Francis Phelan is a bum, having left his wife and children over twenty years ago be
John David
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 th
Francis Phelan, a bum day laboring in an Albany cemetery, inadvertently stumbles upon his baby son's grave. The same son who slipped through Francis' fingers years ago. Six feet below, the child stirs and decides that Francis' path to redemption and self forgiveness is about to begin. This begins the brilliantly written tale of Francis and his hobo girlfriend Helen. They spend most of their time trying to find shelter, money, and drink. But Francis' past is always calling. Evocative imagery, poe ...more
I made a decision a few weeks ago that I would read all the Pulitzer Prize winners for fiction, beginning in the year I was born (1984) and continuing through the present. I always know what's next, the mix of authors and material is varied, and I will finally get around to reading some things I know I should have gotten to long ago. Ironweed, as you may have figured out, was the 1984 winner.

In it, Kennedy tells the story of a bum who was once a well liked ball-player and family man but lost eve
This Pulitzer Prize winning novel is just like a Tom Waits song. The prose is lovely and the characters are down and out. It is the story of Francis Phelan, an alcoholic bum who returns to his hometown, Albany, in 1938. There he meets up with his companion of many years, Helen, another alcoholic drifter. In Albany, Francis ends up confronting the ghosts of his past, his guilt, remorse, and sorrow. Kennedy gives Francis and Helen's brokenness a warmth and beauty completely free of judgement and s ...more
Ned Mozier
It is early Christmas morning before my family has awakened and I’m warming myself by a nice radiator with all the modern comforts of a home and all my true needs basically covered. Not so the character of Francis Phelan, who returns to Albany New York in 1937 after 22 years bumming on the road. He tells this tale, the 3rd in the Albany series that I’ve read in the last 3 years, with intricate detail about the history, people and physical geography of a time and place. This is a tale about homec ...more
Trenton Judson
This was such an enjoyable read. I am finally deprogramming from all the University horseshit and I got entangled in this great story. Sometimes, I think that people in the English profession actually hate books, or at least love to hate them. I'm so tired of that with books, so many people act like they are dissecting a frog when the review these books, there is no passion and I find that disheartening. Where are the muck and the mud and the beauty? Well, I'll tell you, they are in this book. S ...more
What an ordeal. The quality of the writing is undoubtedly Pulitzer worthy, theres no denying that. I think i must be somewhat of a snob however, I just dont enjoy reading about down and outs and people at the end of the road, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Give me a bit of escapism any day over a gritty dirge of a book, depsite its literary merits. It does make you think, and in some ways it good to see life from way over the other side of the tracks, to think that these people are all ...more
The prose of this book is so gorgeous I could almost overlook that it's about a drunk, violent, nasty bum, his bum buddies, and their enablers. Almost.

Maybe there wasn't enough background to make the characters sympathetic? It's a really short book and I feel like some important parts were missing, or maybe they were alluded to and I'm not bright enough to pick up on them? Why was this bum so appealing to everyone? Why should I give a shit about him? That's what's missing.

I got all excited in t
Some time ago, a man in our area took his little boy deer hunting on a cold winter morning. The boy must have been about 4 years old. He had fallen asleep and was secured into his car seat when the dad left for a while to go deer spotting. When he got back, the boy was gone. He was found sometime later, not too far from the truck, frozen to death. I can only imagine the grief this poor man must have experienced. On top of that, he was charged with negligent homicide. On the morning of his arraig ...more
Joey Gold
"Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company."
-Mark Twain

"Ironweed" is chilly, bloody, thrilling, darkly-comic; and far from a crime novel. William Kennedy radiates those adjectives seemingly without any intention to do so. There aren't any mysteries, villains in a traditional sense (and DEFINITELY no heroes) and the action, even when it's colored in whiskey and guts, swarms on in a somewhat mellow, true-to-life pace, an understated rhythm that mimics earth's true tempo. A clock doesn't t
Oct 09, 2013 Ed rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: literary and noir fans
Recommended to Ed by: A Pulitizer Prize winner
When I was a kid, I used to see the ironweed blooming along the creeks and edges of fields. Many years later, I saw a novel by the same name had won the Pulitzer Prize. Now I finally got around to reading it, and I am glad I did. Francis "Fran" Phelan is an ex-ballplayer (a third baseman for the Washington Senators, my favorite team). Francis dropped his baby boy Gerald on his head and killed him twenty-two years ago, and left home in great sorrow and regret. Francis calls himself a bum, though ...more
Damn I loved the dialogue in this book. I wish it was a play instead. He gets everything in the words of the bums. Hey, bum: When they are drunk, when they are funny, when they are clever, and when they are dying and sad.

The prose was overstated for a bum book, but I grew to love it too. In fact, sometimes when reading this the mental, physical, and spiritual suffering of the characters was unbearable, it really hurt - but then it is completely compensated by joy a few pages later when an insig
I usually love books about the down and out, and this book is full of some very haunted, guilty and broken people, but it all feels just a bit too melodramatic and humorless for its own good. And that isn't helped by Kennedy, who is a very gifted prose stylist, but just can't seem to settle on what style or perspective he's going to tackle these people's misery from. That kind of bouncing around isn't necessarily a bad thing (hell, Malcolm Lowry makes it work great), but it seems like he's just ...more
This book is the Pulitzer winning, second novel in William Kennedy's 'Albany Cycle', a series I was introduced to after a recommendation by one of my favourite authors, Willy Vlautin.

While reading the first in the series, 'Billy Phelan's Greatest Game' isn't essential to enjoying this book, it gives it a bit of context, and indeed begins exactly where the first book finished off, this time however focusing on the character of Francis Phelan, Billy Phelan's father, onetime Major League Baseball p
I suspected Ironweed might be good based on the big sticker "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" on the cover. Then again, I've read some pulitzer winners that were basically trash. So…I was skeptical. Turns out I loved it. It actually reminded me of one of those "Famous" short novels you read in school…a separate peace, catcher in the rye, of mice and men…in that they are basically about the happenings of a few days time. Things happen. Some are dramatic, some just move the plot. But in the end, you ...more
Ulrich Krieghund
I think a great deal of late about the stars I give to books. It is my voice expressing my simple reflections on a book. Not that my voice matters in the howling wilderness of other voices. It's just that it is the most important voice in the world to me, as it my own.

That said, I wanted to like this novel more than three stars, except I do not care a whit for the protagonist. As a drunken ex-ballplayer, he seems to have very little going for him. The only thing that carries him through life is
RB Love
Katie bar the door. Too wet to plow. Francis Phelan was a great baseball player. By the time we catch up with him he is a mean drunk, a killer, a bum, unsympathetic really. He sees angels or ghosts. He speaks to them. He ran out on his family 22 years ago when his baby, Gerald, slipped through his fingers and broke his neck. And your with him, as a reader. In the end, I think, I'm just mainly glad I'm not him. Life happens to him and at times he reacts to the situations he finds himself in admir ...more
Persephone Abbott
I started reading this book and thought, "I bet Dennis Hopper played the lead in the film." I was close but way off because Jack Nicholson won the Oscar for best actor. This book for me was too 1980's -- that vibe of a then fifty something author writing about the new counter culture heroes which littered the 80's era but here in a 1938 setting. Still the writing was very very good. The story as it was told bored me. As I read the novel I kept thinking the story was just a few bars above a made ...more
Mar 26, 2012 Veronica rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommended to Veronica by: Modern Library's 100 Best Novels
I couldn’t help picturing Jack Nicholson while I read Ironweed and I’m not sure if that is a good or a bad thing. My viewing of the film version, however, was incomplete as I’ve never seen it in its entirety, but rather in bits and pieces, not as intended, but just how it turned out. The written version helped filled in the blanks for my limited viewing.

Transitioning from the ultimate indifferent characters in Tobacco Road to the utterly destitute ones in Ironweed was akin to stepping down anoth
Francis Phelan has no place to call home. At least, none that he feels right to call home. An accident in his past drove him away from ‘home’. It is something that he will never forget nor maybe forgive himself. In this book, we follow Francis as he relives moments of his former life, the good and the bad. His ghostly past haunted him throughout and will never let him go.

It was a strange read as it provoked mixed feelings in me. As I work in the city, I see a number of homeless people and usuall
Simon Mcleish
Originally published on my blog here in July 2002.

Francis Phelan left Albany in 1916 after he accidentally dropped and killed his baby son while drunk; after twenty two years living as a bum he returns, trying to make his peace with his memories. This simple idea is the basis for Kennedy's short but deep novel about coming to terms with the past; everyone has to live with the mistakes they have made (even if "what if..." is one of humanity's favourite games), and though Francis may have more ser
Ironweed by William Kennedy

Ironweed received the Pulitzer Prize, it is included in The Modern Library Top 100 Best Novels and in the Western Canon of Harold Bloom.

I loved the book, but I had trouble with my visions. Before reading the novel, i had seen the movie with Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. This is a big mistake I have made more than once.

I did not see all of the film Women in Love, but Glenda Jackson stayed with me and whenever Gudrun’s character got mentioned, I could only see Glenda
Adrian Stumpp
Kennedy’s short novel is divided into seven chapters. The first four chapters at their best are astounding, at worst, solid. The last two chapters are the most important to the story and the least compelling. The final effect is a reading experience that is thoroughly enjoyable coupled with disappointment upon completion. The protagonist, Francis Phelan, is well-wrought, complex, and believable. After killing a scab during a workers’ strike, an act which may or may not have been completely accid ...more
Apr 03, 2008 Amy rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: nobody
This is the absolute worst Pulitzer winner I've ever read. Were there no other books written in 1983? The author is constantly switching around in time and place in his story. Just when you think someone's dead, they show back up again in the narrative. This makes for a very confusing read. I suppose it's written like we remember things from our lives: out of order such that the past and the present, the dead and the living all intertwine. Frankly, I wasn't impressed. The main character, Francis ...more
Aug 20, 2012 Amanda rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone interested in upstate NY history or depression-era tales.
I chose to read Ironweed for a number of reasons, primarily because it takes place in my hometown, Albany, NY. I also selected it because it was written by Albany native/resident/university educator, William Kennedy. It was the recipient of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and was made into a major-motion picture. Though I did not see the film, I remember what a huge deal it was when they opted to film a portion of it at a dilapidated, old farm house about 5 miles from my own home, a scene tha ...more
As in damn fine writing. As in these characters are damned but oh so worthy of Kennedy's damn fine prose--or is it verse? Read the first chapter and you tell me.
I can't believe I had two semesters of American Lit and this guy was never mentioned! This is the stuff that truly humbles me and makes me bow down and say a little prayer of thanks that I lived a life where NO book was ever off limits to me. And I would expect that this book would be banned by many (although Kennedy didn't publish
bittersweet book about devastating lives - looking at lots of causes, including general cruelty, but mostly looking at how guilt, combined with not having the skills to talk about it, can lead a person to make awful, punishing choices. His description of homeless life is dead on. I particularly liked the thin veil between the living and the dead experienced by a man on the streets - who is so close to death for multiple reasons every day of his homelessness.
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William Joseph Kennedy is an American writer and journalist born and raised in Albany, New York. Many of his novels feature the interaction of members of the fictional Irish-American Phelan family, and make use of incidents of Albany's history and the supernatural. Kennedy's works include The Ink Truck (1969), Legs (1975), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), Ironweed (1983, winner of 1984 Pulitze ...more
More about William Kennedy...

Other Books in the Series

The Albany Cycle (8 books)
  • Legs
  • Billy Phelan's Greatest Game
  • Quinn's Book
  • Very Old Bones
  • The Flaming Corsage
  • Roscoe
  • Changó's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes
Legs Billy Phelan's Greatest Game Very Old Bones Roscoe Quinn's Book

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“Love, is always insufficient, always a lie. Love, you are the clean shit of my soul. Stupid love, silly love. ” 12 likes
“. . . and what if I did drink too much? Whose business is that? Who knows how much I didn't drink?” 9 likes
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