Ironweed – William Kennedy

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 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.

Having never heard of this melancholy tale before, it now seems like a bit of a travesty on my part to have gone so long without doing so.  Although it’s the third book in the Albany Cycle, it can be read as a stand alone (as I read it), and will probably be followed by a wish to read the rest.

A (pleasing) mention of the infamous H.G. Wells radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds sets the time of the novel in late 1938,  a few years before America would enter the soon to start World War II.  A time when opportunity would present itself in an unprecedented scale, the irony of which will not be lost on the reader.

Likeable Francis, a drifter returning home, is the central focus of a story that encapsulates, poverty, the failure of the American dream, guilt and the consequences of his actions.  Francis undergoes an unlayering of personality – almost archaeologically so – throughout the book,  as circumstance teases out his recollected memories of both his high and low points.

The themes of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness are delicately explored, as are relationships to death, and of being forgotten by those held dear; and of society itself, which chooses to look the other way rather than confront its own failings, in a class of people struggling not only to live but to find a meaning for themselves.

There is a recognisably American terseness to the prose, but as so often, there is plenty of beauty to be had therein.  From within the woes some poetical lines emerge, and there is also tenderness to the plight of Francis and his friends.

By their talk to each other they understood that they shared a belief in the brotherhood of the desolate; yet in the scars of their eyes they confirmed that no such fraternity had ever existed, that the only brotherhood they belonged to was the one that asked the enduring question: How do I get through the next twenty minutes?

This being my first experience of Kennedy’s writing, I was captivated throughout by the mournful tone he uses, with the hints at redemption offered, some taken, others often spurned.  Ironweed is a book of depth and maturity, exploring what it is to live life, and what it is to live for the dead.

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19 Replies to “Ironweed – William Kennedy”

    1. Maybe I should pay more attention to prize winners but I can’t bring myself to research the judges and any affiliations they may have to the winning author or publishers, and so forth. This was a pleasant and unexpected surprise, I am hopeful of more such literary surprises in the future.

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      1. I’ve been reading a few Pulitzer Prize winners recently (The Sympathizer, Kavalier and Clay) and I’ve found them universally excellent. It’s weird how little attention the UK media pays to awards over the water.
        I have heard of this book before as I accidentally picked it up when I was 11 or 12. Obviously I didn’t get beyond the first few pages but the man’s harrowing ordeal over the death of his infant son and the broken nature of his thoughts has stayed with me forever. I don’t think I could bring myself to read the whole book now though.
        I must have picked it up because it was a film tie-in version (there was a movie of this book back in the 80s, with Jack Nicholson in the main role).

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        1. Why look anywhere else when you have the towering presence of the Costa book awards

          Looking through the Pulitzer winners, I’ve only read three and heard of a handful of others, it will be a pleasure to search out some more, especially the less well known authors.

          Attempting this at 12 is an impressive feat, it was probably for the best you didn’t finish it then! I came across the movie when searching for the relevant book cover, it will be worth a look one day, just so I can tell people the book is better, as is so often the case.

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      1. I know – it’s too awful to contemplate. I occasionally try to come up with some kind of plan to get through ‘must read’ books. But this always results in a depressing reminder that I will only ever scratch the surface, if that, of everything I would like to get through (unless I manage to live for 500 years of course).

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  1. I’m glad that my spontaneity in buying books for you works. It is good to read books from authors we have not come across. I am excited to read this book!

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    1. You continue to fuel my desire to learn and experience everything I can. This is why I keep sneakily hinting that I should buy more books, a library is a treasure worth a thousand Jollibees!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not surprised that, as Alastair records, Jack Nicholson got this part in the movie: it’s just his kind of role. As for me and this book, I’m trying to sum up the umph! to read something so grim.

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    1. As grim as it is, it’s not all doom and gloom, it does have a large dose though. I may watch the film when I get time, I seem to be enjoying more than usual of late.

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    1. I haven’t but it is on my list to watch now. I am eager to watch more films this year as well as the reading too. I like to think reading and watching films are for a books and films blog post but it’s really an excuse to indulge.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks very much for the excellent review. It may not be for me as I find myself increasingly unable to cope with doom and gloom but I will look out for it on my book shop trawls.

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