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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Why is William Kennedy’s Ironweed such a fine novel?

First, there is not a word of dialogue that does not sound right. Nor are there wasted words in the narrative. Kennedy writes a lean prose that makes a reader step right into the world of Francis Phelan, a so-called bum in Albany. In Kennedy’s novel the bums call themselves by this name but have not entirely absorbed society’s view of them. What brings Francis back to Albany, the place he left 22 years earlier, deserting his wife Annie and two children, Billy and Peg?

In a matter of two days (Halloween and All Soul’s Day) Kennedy unravels Phelan’s life through his meetings with ghosts from his past. These include his infant son Gerald, and those persons that Francis the drunk, or Francis the lover of justice, or Francis the violent one, accidently or purposely killed.

I feel it is impossible to dislike this character. A reader lives an experience (purgatory) with Francis, Helen, Rudy, and others in Ironweed. It is not a dismal novel but one infused with hope that Francis returns to a softer, warmer, cleaner place; that a new truth will be like the false teeth he envisions for himself. Will he take to the road or train again? Kennedy never went on record to answer this question. But if the novel is read slowly more than once, I think the answer is clear because of the brilliant juxtaposition between the first chapter and the last with Strawberry Bill.

Kennedy wrote the screenplay for the film version with Jack Nicholsen as Francis and Merrill Streep as Helen. Unforgettable performances!

While reading Ironweed, I wept for these characters and like them, I wanted to drink too much wine to withstand life’s ugliness and life’s transcendent beauty. Except for the shadowy figures who attack the hobos at the end of the novel, there is not a minor character without a believable human dimension. What Kennedy wrote is miraculous; and the adjectives mystical and holy describe this Dantesque novel. After Ironweed, can a reader look at a person in or on the streets without remembering Francis and his “chilling fusion of beauty and desolation?”

“The city had grown quiet at midnight and the moon was as white as early snow. A few cars moved slowly on Pearl Street but otherwise the streets were silent. Francis turned up his suitcoat collar and shoved his hands into pants pockets. Alongside the mission the moon illuminated Sandra, who sat where they had left her….Francis squatted and shook her. “You sobered up yet, lady?” Sandra answered with an enveloping silence…

“The dogs got her,” he said. From this simple half-scene, Kennedy later moves to the following, in which he compresses his character’s life into one sentence.

“Francis began to run, and in so doing, reconstituted a condition that was as pleasurable to his being as it was natural: the running of bases after the crack of the bat, the running from accusation, the running from the calumny of men and women, the running from family, from bondage, from destitution of spirit through ritualistic straightening, the running, finally, in a quest for pure flight as a fulfilling mannerism of the spirit.”

Ironweed, though rejected by several publishers, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and garner for Kennedy, a MacArthur genius grant.

Until next week…

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