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Ironweed [Reading] ➺ Ironweed Author 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 again after acci 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 again after accidentally and fatally dropping his infant sonNow in 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.

About the Author: William Kennedy

William Joseph Kennedy is an American writer and journalist born and raised in Albany New York Many of his novels feature the interaction of members of the fictional Irish American Phelan family and make use of incidents of Albany's history and the supernatural Kennedy's works include The Ink Truck Legs Billy Phelan's Greatest Game Ironweed winner of Pulitze.

10 thoughts on “Ironweed

  1. Michael Finocchiaro Michael Finocchiaro says:

    Ironweed is the third book of William Kennedy's Albany series which focuses on the character Francis Phelan father of the protagonist of his previous book Billy Phelan's Greatest Game and referring at times to events in the first book of this series Legs It won the Pulitzer in 1984 beating out Cathedral by Raymond Carver and The Feud by Thomas Berger neither of which I have read yet I think it was an unusual choice for the committee and actually preferred Billy Phelan's Greatest Game Nonetheless it was a great readThe book is almost entirely written from Francis' perspective through his own neuroses and alcholic hazes with hallucinations and sudden mood changes For all of that Franny is an interesting character that reminds me of an uncle of mine that passed a few years ago It starts with Francis going into the family cemetery as a grave digger passing not without some significance the graves of his parents and the child he inadvertently killed when it slipped out of a loose diaper and broke its neck This small pieces of insight are what build our sympathy with the protagonist It is best to have read Billy Phelan's Greatest Game to get the context for how Billy views this event and his encounter with Helen in order to fully appreciate the narrative here Nobody uite describes life underneath society whether that of gamblers or of gangsters or of bums uite like Kennedy It is most likely that precisely which earned him the Pulitzer for this book The prose can be evocative and powerful in passages such as this when Francis looks back at his own conception She closed her eyes and feel back on the wedding bed like a corpse ready to receive the thrust and the old man's impeccable blood shot into her aged vessel with a passionate burst that sset her writhing with the life of newley conceived death Francis watched this primal pool of his own soulish body suirm into burgeoning matter saw it change and grow with the speed of light until it was the size of an infant saw it yanked out by his father who straightened him slapped him into being and swiftly molded him into a bestial weed The body sprouted to wildly matured growth and stood fully clad at last in the very clothes Francis was now wearing He recognized the toothless mouth the absent finger joints the bump on the nose the mortal slouch of his newborn shade and he knew then that he would be this decayed self he had been so long in becoming though all the endless years of his death p 99Francis was born in an atmosphere of neglect and horror of pleasure and repulsion for sex and this colored his entire existence There is a certain fatalism in Kennedy's writing I saw on a poster in the metro for an association for aiding the poor that on average it takes six generations for a family to rise out of poverty I get the feeling that Kennedy would find even that number somewhat optimistic When we see the characters that populate his books there seems to be a laid in complacency a lazy acceptance of mediocrity Characters that buck this system are brutally beaten down or merely ignored and forgotten That being said there is a redeeming message underneath that of love that a vision of his mother who died in a house fire transmits to him And then the woman interposed herself in his life hiding herself in the deepest center of the flames smiling at him with all the lewd beauty of her dreams; and she awakened in him the urge for a love of his own a love that belonged to no other man a love he would never have to share with any man or boy like himself p 116 Even importantly even if it does not improve the economics there is a reckoning and a sea change that operates in Francis despite his initial reticence Everything was easier than coming home even reducing yourself to the level of social maggot streetside slugBut then he came home p 160 Abandoning Helen Francis overcomes his self hate and is able to reconcile with his past I felt tearful when he went up to the attic and looked at the remnants of his previous life p 168 Despite preferring the previous book I truly did enjoy this one for the great writing and the story of redemption which did not stoop to empty sentimentalism but rather shows Francis dealing with his own sins on his own terms

  2. Kemper Kemper says:

    Treasure of the Rubbermaids 19 Big Rock Candy Mountain The on going discoveries of priceless books and comics found in a stack of Rubbermaid containers previously stored and forgotten at my parent’s house and untouched for almost 20 years Thanks to my father dumping them back on me I now spend my spare time unearthing lost treasures from their plastic depthsFrancis Phelan is living the romantic life of a hobo during the Great Depression Drifting from town to town by hopping trains and with no responsibilities to tie him down Francis enjoys the company of his fellow bums as they share cans of beans and jugs of wineOK that’s bullshit Any notions of the hobo lifestyle having some kind of appeal are dealt with uickly and brutally here Francis’s existence is a daily grind of trying to avoid freezing or starving to death and a hobo’s corpse uickly becomes food for wild dogs With few teeth left in his head and a simple shoestring being beyond his means Francis dispels the myth of the carefree hobo Particularly cringe worthy is a scene in which he is trying to take advantage of a visit to a friend’s apartment by cleaning himself up and his underwear falls to pieces when he tries to wash them in the sink Think about how skeevy those drawers had to be and tell me you want to hang out by the campfire under the bridgeFrancis is also dealing with a fair amount of guilt He hit the rails the first time after killing a scab during a strike and while he eventually came home after that incident another tragic turn sent him on the bum for good when Francis dropped his infant son who broke his neck in the fall Way to go butterfingers His life as a hobo added to his regrets as the rough existence of a drifter forced him to kill others along the way As a wise man once sang Nothing beats the hobo lifeStabbing folks with my hobo knifeBack in his old home town of Albany Francis is stuck trying to work off a debt to a lawyer and dealing with the many ghosts that his past has haunted him with He’s also trying to look out for his hobo girlfriend Helen and his buddy Rudy Running into his grown sons provides the shocking realization that his family doesn’t hold a grudge for him abandoning them but can Francis ever forgive himself? Francis story is sad and compelling and he’s an interesting character He makes no excuses for the things he’s done or how he lives Despite his capacity for violence he doesn’t look for trouble He’s generous with what little he has as well as compassionate He’s got a kind of cheerful pragmatism despite the regrets he hasThe story of Francis makes this worth checking out and it’s certainly well written but I’m a little shocked that it won a Pulitzer It seems very good but not at a level of greatness that kind of prize would indicate

  3. Kelly (and the Book Boar) Kelly (and the Book Boar) says:

    Find all of my reviews at “Katie bar the door Too wet to plow” Okay since I’m a robot that’s a bit of a fabrication I did however get a little choked up and that’s pretty much as good as it gets when it comes to me bawlingFrancis has spent his entire life running “Running bases after the crack of the bat running from accusation running from the calumny of men and women running from family from bondage from destitution of spirit through ritualistic straightenings running finally in a uest for pure flight as a fulfilling mannerism of the spirit” He finally decided to run for good after the accidental death of his newborn son Francis hit rock bottom and became a vagrant He now spends his days doing as little as possible in order to earn enough to buy himself a jug each night in a futile attempt to rid himself of the voices of ghosts from his past “I’m sick of you all is his thought I am sick of imagining what you became what I might have become if I’d lived among you I am sick of your melancholy histories your sentimental pieties your goddamned unchanging faces You ain’t nothin’ than a photograph you goddamn spooks You ain’t real and I ain’t gonna be at your beck and call no You’re all dead and if you ain’t you ought to be” I feel than a little crappy giving a Pulitzer Prize winner a 3 Star rating but???? It is what it is Here’s the deal The first 75 pages and the last 75 pages of Ironweed are 5 Star worthy The writing is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen and when you’re dealing with nothing but horrifying and revolting situations that’s a major feat to accomplish but the middle killed it You’ll notice in my synopsis I conveniently left out anything about the character “Helen” While I found her to be a fine addition in order to add to the richness of Francis’ story and apparently the movie version really beefed up her part being that Meryl Streep received an Oscar nod for the role I felt the book went a little off the rails having a featured segment of Helen’s history along with padding Francis’ tale even further Even the prose changed in the middle of the book Maybe that change was intentional and I’m just too dumb to get it but it felt like a bunch of filler to me My other complaint? The dialogue This is a book that is filled with elaborate description and imagery that really made me feel like I was experiencing everything along with Francis and then the characters started talking and I was immediately yanked right back to reality because the conversations seemed so stilted and read so false to me The exception? The conversations Francis has with his “ghosts” – now some of those were heartbreaking If you haven’t yet read Ironweed and are already experiencing the holiday doldrums I recommend keeping this pushed back a bit on your to be read list After all no one wants to come to someone’s house and find not only the turkey cooking in the oven but the host trying to stick their head in there alongside it as well

  4. David J. David J. says:

    “The dead they all got eyes”I wanted to hate this book Portions of it are simply offensive Those portions however are significantly outweighed by Kennedy’s ability to create beautiful prose out of objectionable material There are no doubt pages of this book that read like poetry The first chapter is a compelling introduction to a character that begs for your revulsion receiving instead your compassion Francis Phelan is a bum having left his wife and children over twenty years ago because of some poor choices and bad luck I still have not decided if Francis is a product of his own agency or a victim of his circumstances That is why in the end I cannot condemn him although I want to He left his familyThe novel is set in the late 1930’s and covers approximately two or three days of Francis’ return to his hometown of Albany where he finally attempts to reconcile with those living all the while hounded by those who left this life either by his hand or in spite of it Francis’ guilt regarding those who died whether or not by his hand follows him through his attempt at reconciliation and redemption in the form of ghosts They appear to him lying in their graves they visit him in bathrooms backyards and while Francis is in a congregation of other bums There is a scene where the dead seem to build bleachers and gather to watch what is arguably the most important portions of Francis’ story It is in these scenes that I stopped blaming Francis although he never stops blaming himself It is the pursuit by Francis’ past and the beautiful prose Kennedy uses to describe the filthy things of transient life that compel me to give it four stars rather than three or two I don’t recommend this book to anyone under 18 since there are some heavy adult themes In spite of those themes I loved Ironweed for its ability to create beauty in the least likely of placesIn the last few paragraphs of Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” the narrator and protagonist laments the loss of those he knew and loved in life that he could still hear their voices in the currents of the river Ironweed is an example of Maclean’s aching last line “I am haunted by waters” In the closing pages of Ironweed Francis finally comes to terms with his life “Francis asserted his own private wisdom and purpose he had fled the folks because he was too profane a being to live among them; he had humbled himself willfully through the years to counter a fearful pride in his own ability to manufacture glory from which grace would flow” Unlike those of us who try to bury or erase the guilt of our past misdeeds Francis comes to understand “My guilt is all that I have left If I lose it I have stood for nothing done nothing been nothing” In a culture where men and women so uickly become animals Francis’ guilt is his last scrap of evidence he is indeed human

  5. Betsy Robinson Betsy Robinson says:

    I don’t particularly like being around drunks nor do I enjoy reading about them But William Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about a down and out ex baseball player Francis who sees dead people and is dedicated to his own pain and a life spent running from it and his cadre of drunks including his girl Helen a former musician is so finely and freely well written sometimes funny and authentic that I read it slowly with pleasure as well as pain this drunk was not dead not dying but living an epilogue to a notable life And yet and yet here he was disguised behind a mustache another cripple his ancient weary eyes revealing to Francis the scars of a blood brother a man for whom life had been a promise unkept in spite of a great success a promise now and forever unkeepable The man was singing a song that had grown old not from time but from wear The song is frayed The song is worn out 49 50And maybe my favorite line If you love something well enough Grandmother Archer told Helen when the weakness was upon her you will die for it; for when we love with all our might our silly little selves are already dead and we have no fear of dying 118The book flows easily between reality surreal reality memory and memory as reality in a Dubliners kind of journey through 1930s Depression era Albany New York I’ve lived in New York City for than forty years so I have history that haunts me attached to places—both existing and long renovated away—as I walk through neighborhoods where I’ve lived and worked when I was in my twenties thirties and forties or theaters I acted in when I was doing that For a long time I’ve been thinking about writing something about this phenomenon of distinct former lives being so vivid that they still exist as one retraces old ground Now I don’t have to William Kennedy wrote this as well as I can imagine it being done It’s not a literary trick; it’s just really good writing—worth living through despite my historical but still perpetual difficulties in the world of drunks

  6. Ned Ned says:

    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 reasonFrancis 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’ spiritthey both know intimately the etiuette 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 FrancisHelen 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 himselfThere 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 sentenceOnce 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 unreuited 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 grotesuely 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

  7. Tara Rock Tara Rock says:

    This story really touched me emotionally Sad beautiful and engrossing I will always remember Katie bar the door and It's too wet to plow A very rich and startling Pulitzer prize winner

  8. Steve Steve says:

    Ironweed was a much better book than I expected although I don’t really know why I had low expectations to begin with Mr Kennedy engagingly describes the destitute former major league baseball player Francis Phelan now living on the street in Albany NY ending the story with a whiff of hope Phelan's attraction is right up there with Joyce’s Buck Mulligan Döblin’s Franz Biberkopf and Grass’ Oskar Matzerath I thought about how thin and porous that boundary can be between ‘us’ and ‘them’

  9. Seattle Al Seattle Al says:

    As a disclaimer when I finished this book I discovered it was the last in a trilogy I have not read the two preceding works Nonetheless here's my reaction to it as a stand alone novelThe book is difficult to characterize because the main character both engages and repels He comes from an Irish American Catholic working class family and neighborhood in Albany NY in the early decades of the 20th century He is haunted by his past; he caused several deaths some intentionally some not He has been a respected baseball player a hooligan a bum his favorite word and a fugitive from the police We see him both among the homeless and among his family We feel tenderness yet plenty of revulsion and to be honest some of the revulsion is at the sualid circumstances of his day to day existence The author uses a fair amount of Faulknerian Joycean movement among events and memories and even hallucinations I was a little disappointed by the ending no spoiler coming but otherwise I think the novel moves us as much as it can with a main character we feel ambivalent about

  10. Joe Joe says:

    Francis Phelan a bum day laboring in an Albany cemetery inadvertently stumbles upon his baby son's grave The same son who slipped through Francis' fingers years ago Six feet below the child stirs and decides that Francis' path to redemption and self forgiveness is about to begin This begins the brilliantly written tale of Francis and his hobo girlfriend Helen They spend most of their time trying to find shelter money and drink But Francis' past is always calling Evocative imagery poetic language and a charming main character are the highlights of this Pulitzer winner Certain elements of the story particularly the wrap up are a little pat but it is still a must read

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