Booknblues's Reviews > Ironweed

Ironweed by William Kennedy
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's review
Jan 18, 2016

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, 20th-century, american-literature
Read in December, 2011

We find ourselves on the seedy side of Albany, NY during the great depression in William Kennedy’s novel, Ironweed. Francis Phelan who lives one day unto the next by any means he can with his lady friend and fellow bum, Helen, finds he must work to pay off the lawyer who defended him for registering to vote 21 times. First he works in a cemetery and then as a rag picker. When he is not working he drifts in alleyways, missions, and bars.

Kennedy’s work is full of emptiness and loss and a strange futile sense of hope. It is heavy and atmospheric. The winter is coming on and the reader cannot help to feel the chill of the bums in their tattered clothing. Throughout the book there is always the sense of what might have been for the characters. Francis, a former major league baseball player with heart and emotion, what would he have become if not for losing his grip and Helen we get a glimpse of her potential when she shyly steps to the microphone in a nightclub. Now in their 50’s it seems they have nowhere left to go.

Kennedy’s prose is strangely beautiful and evocative in such a cold and squalid setting:

“The new and frigid air of November lay on Francis like a blanket of glass. Its weight rendered him motionless and brought peace to his body, and the stillness brought a cessation of anguish to his brain. In a dream he was only just beginning to enter, horns and mountains rose up out of the earth, the horns --ethereal, trumpets--sounding with a virtuosity equal to the perilousness of the crags and cornices of the mountainous pathways. Francis recognized the song the trumpets played and he floated with its melody. Then yielding not without trepidation to its coded urgency, he ascended bodily into the exalted reaches of the world where the song had been composed so long ago. And he slept.”

Ironweed is populated by various ghosts of the past who rise from their grave, climb aboard wagons and hang out in a hobo jungle. They chat, scold and lecture Francis as he journeys about the city of Albany. His mother braids dandelion roots in her grave in the Albany cemetary. They lend a strange and eerie air to the already atmospheric novel.

Ironweed is not a novel I can say I enjoyed, but I appreciated it for its story, the relationships of the characters, the sense of beauty and depth in the midst of such desolation and its wonderful prose.

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