Tuesday, 16 July 2002

William Kennedy: Ironweed (1983)

Edition: Penguin, 1984
Review number: 1106

Francis Phelan left Albany in 1916 after he accidentally dropped and killed his baby son while drunk; after twenty two years living as a bum he returns, trying to make his peace with his memories. This simple idea is the basis for Kennedy's short but deep novel about coming to terms with the past; everyone has to live with the mistakes they have made (even if "what if..." is one of humanity's favourite games), and though Francis may have more serious issues to deal with and may have run away from them more literally than most, his experience is one with which everyone can identify.

There are two main sides to Ironweed. On the one hand, there is the mundane world of the alcoholic down and out in thirties America (even if Francis is currently "dry"). The aimlessness of this subculture combines with the Irishness of the characters to create an impression reminiscent of Waiting For Godot. The wastefullness of the lifestyle is also a strong part of the background, both in terms of the talents of those who become alcoholics (Francis was at one point a major league baseball player, and his companion's studies to become a concert pianist were only cut short by her father's suicide) and in the ever present threat of a squalid death.

The other side to the novel is, I suppose, a kind of magic realist touch. As Francis travels round Albany, he meets the ghosts of those whose death he has been involved with, including not just his son but strikebreakers killed in a riot when he was a striking tram driver. This device introduces pathos, through Francis' conversations with these ghosts, as well as providing the background to his life in Albany prior to going on the road. The ghosts are real to Francis, and so are recorded as though really present even though no one else is able to perceive them; the reader can decide for themselves whether they are supposed to be actual manifestations or constructs of Francis' subconscious.

A more minor facet of the novel which is of some interest is the title. As is indicated at the very beginning, tall ironweed is an American wild flower related to the sunflower, which gets its common name because it has a tough stem. It seems at the outset that this is rather inapplicable to the central character of Francis Phelan - running away to become an alcoholic tramp after killing his child is not the action of as strong a character as this implies, particularly as he did much the same after the strike a few years earlier. As you go on, however, you begin to see that this is a hasty judgement (and, after all, he ran because of something pretty serious in both cases). For a start, Francis is clearly extremely strong physically; no one who wasn't could survive over two decades of alcoholism. Then, too, it takes strength to go back, particularly as the barriers against doing so are likely to seem higher as time passes rather than lower (the reaction of Francis' daughter when she sees him is exactly the sort of thing that he will have been brooding about for twenty years).

Marred in places by a certain sentimentality, Ironweed is nonetheless a fascinating portrait of an individual facing up to the actions of his past.

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