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. Continue reading “Ironweed – William Kennedy”