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.