Ned's Reviews > Ironweed

Ironweed by William  Kennedy
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it was amazing

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 homecoming, and a completely unsentimental account of being homeless: It captures what seems most true about what drives these poor souls to the road and what keeps them there. It is told in gorgeous imagery and beautiful writing, from the old-fashioned omnipotent point of view. The result is an understanding of human nature, the conditions that trap us, and a mighty struggle for redemption (the elements I seek most in novels). This won the Pulitzer prize for good reason.

Francis (Franny) is first born of Irish immigrants, 58 years old, and back after having fled his native Albany presumably to escape his public braining of a scab during a railroad strike and privately his demons from having tragically killed his newborn by dropping him during a diaper change. Franny is still physically robust, though downtrodden and shabby in the ways of all hoboes, and observes his traveling companion Rudy (p. 23) as “…simple, hopeless as lost as Francis himself, though somewhat younger, dying of cancer, afloat in ignorance, weighted with stupidity, inane, sheeplike, and given to fits of weeping over his lostness; and yet there was something in him that buoyed Francis’ spirit…they both know intimately the etiquette, the taboos, the protocol of bums.”

We (I) tend to forget that all humans, even bums, are human and have the same basic nature. Francis has a woman, Helen, (p. 55) whose first true love “….kept her in his fierce embrace for years, but then he loosened that embrace and let her slide down and down until the hope within her died. Hopeless Helen, that’s who she was when she met Francis….Helen was a living explosion of unbearable memory and indomitable joy.”

There are many down and outers covered in this fine book, like Clara, whom Francis (p. 78) sees “….the curve of her life: sexy kid likes the rewards, goes pro, gets restless, marries and makes kids, chucks that, pro again, sickens, but really sick, getting’ old, getting’ ugly, locks onto Jack, turns monster. But she’s got most of her teeth, not bad; and that hair: You get her to a beauty shop and give her a marcel, it’d be all right; put her in new duds, high heels and silk stockin’s; and hey look at them titties, and that leg: The skin’s clear on it.” Franny sees that chance for redemption, but it is not easy for himself.

There is a lot about Irish Catholicism in here, though not heavy handed and very fresh, such as Franny imagining his mother during his own conception (p. 99) “….he felt pity for this woman, who had been spayed by self-neutered nuns and self-gelded priests. As she yielded her fresh body to her new husband out of obligation, Francis felt the iron maiden of induced chastity piercing her everywhere, tightening with the years until all sensuality was strangulated and her body was a bloodless and cold as a granite angel.” Wow, and that’s just part of one sentence!

Once upon a time (1983 or 1984) when I lived in Louisville, KY I saw this book made into film with the popular Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. My wife and I were big fans (especially of Meryl) and I’m glad the intervening years had largely erased my memory (of Jack certainly) so I could enjoy the plot of this book. So it was with fresh pleasure that I got to the point in this book where Francis actually gets up the nerve to visit the family he abandoned 22 years ago. They accept him, surprisingly, in a most touching scene of forgiveness and mixed emotion as we get hope (and Franny luxuriates in a bath and gets fresh close for the first time in a very long time). We get to meet his son Billy (of “Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game”, the 2nd in the Albany trilogy) again. His wife Annie is still unmarried and he sees her tarnished beauty afresh, physical and spiritual. It turns out she never told anyone, even his children that it was he who dropped their newborn those many years ago. This pure, unrequited love, gives Francis hope, and he sits down with his abandoned family to a glorious meal. But, sadly, on the verge of full confession, he feels doomed and hopeless contaminated, and his guilt prevents reconciliation (p. 160): “There was no way he could reveal all that had brought him here. It would have meant the recapitulation not only of all sins but of all his fugitive and fallen dreams, all his random movement across the country and back, all his returns to this city only to leave again without ever coming to see her, them, without ever knowing why he did it. It would have meant the anatomizing of his compulsive violence and his fear of justice, of his time with Helen, his present defection from Helen, his screwing so many women he really wanted nothing to do with, his drunken ways, his morning-after sicknesses, his sleeping in the weeds, his borrowing money from strangers not because there was a depression but first to help to Helen but then because it was easy: Easier than working. Everything was easier than coming home, even reducing yourself to the level of social maggot. Streetside slug”.

During the week or so covered in this book, Francis is in constant communication (hallucinations?) with those in his past, particularly those to whom he has committed violence. He departs his reunion with his family, against their pleas, since there is just too much water under that bridge. Francis has been sober for a week, and (other than the ghosts) his storytelling has been coherent and sharp. On page 192, with foreboding, I read “And so Francis began to drink for the first time in a week”. At this point the narration gets loose, the mean drunk monster is unleashed, and we abruptly see what those demons have been all about. In the early throes of his freshened drunk, Francis has early visions of clarity and sentimentality (p. 204) where we get a glimpse of what it was like to be an immigrant in Albany in the 19th century from a conversation he once had with one of the oldtimers: “..when he and the country were young, when the riverboats brought the greenhorns up the Hudson from the Irish ships. When the cholera was in the air, the greenhorns would be taken off the steamboats at Albany and sent west on canal boats, for the city’s elders had charged the government with keeping the pestilential foreigners out of the city…. The authorities there kept the newcomers westering under duress.”

Later, in the ramshackle hobo town outside Albany, deep into his drunk, around a comforting fire, Francis is tempted to confess again his guilt for dropping his newborn son, but even then (p. 215) “Francis’s confession seemed wasted. Mentioning Gerald to strangers for the first time was a mistake because nobody took it seriously. And it did not diminish his own guilt but merely cheapened the utterance, made it as commonplace as Rudy’s brainless chatter about bears and wizards. Francis concluded he had made yet another wrong decision, another in a long line. He concluded that he was not capable of making a right decision. That he was as wrongheaded a man that ever lived. He felt certain now that he would never attain the balance that allowed so many other men to live peaceful, nonviolent, nonfugitive lives, lives that spawned at least a modicum of happiness in old age.”

And then, in hobo-town, the government goons come sweeping in again and, like a hopeless avenging angel, the still sturdy Francis gets his bloodlust up again, swinging a bat in defense of his fellow bums (p. 218) and getting the old feeling back: “He watched with all but orgasmic pleasure as the breathless man twisted grotesquely and fell without a sound”.

Kennedy knows how to finish as (p. 224) the escaped Francis is tidying up loose ends, preparing for yet another launch, now told as forgone, inevitable: “Then he would walk out of Helen’s room, leaving the light burning. He would walk down the hall to the landing, salute the night clerk, who would be dozing in his chair, and then he would reenter the cold and living darkness of the light”.

The end is ambiguous, as he rattles in a boxcar heading south, where Francis either (1) throws himself off the train and in his dying brain imagines a heaven of living back with wife and family; (2) departs the train and actually returns to said halcyon; or (3) continues his active fantasy life as he rides the rails to his next adventure. This ending is satisfying to me, because this is an epic tale that keeps the mystery intact and reminds us that we are all one step, once decision, one chance encounter from a life of hope and meaning and the alternative.

Thank you William Kennedy for educating, informing and entertaining me. This is why I read. As I’ve said before, this actual book has been on my shelf for 30 years and gave up to me a postcard from that time from my dear departed grandmother, a woman who lived through most of these times (1937) and would have no illusions about human nature and its loveliness and cruelty that never changes. She gave me that love that Francis so undeservedly was yielded by his family, and her place and time is forever etched on my mind from the mundane to the spiritual.
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Reading Progress

July 21, 2013 – Shelved
July 21, 2013 – Shelved as: to-read
December 13, 2014 – Started Reading
December 14, 2014 –
page 20
8.81% "This book has special meaning for me, having traveled with me since I purchased in 1985 in Louisville Kentucky. In the last couple of years I read the first 2 in the series of Kennedy's Albany series (which were both incredible)... so I crack the yellowed pages of Ironweed and find a postcard from my dear, departed grandmother, in her unique handwriting, a capsule from 1985...."
December 23, 2014 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-2 of 2 (2 new)

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Steve Excellent integration of quotes along with your own insights. I read this too long ago to remember most of it, but your review was a great reminder of how good it is. I'm tempted now to read the whole trilogy. (I'd only read Ironweed before, not even knowing it was part of a series.)

Betsy Robinson Thanks for your comment on the ending. I liked it too, and I also wondered what was "real." I like your take that we aren't supposed to really know.

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