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Saturday, August 1, 2009


William Kennedy's Ironweed, Pulitzer Prize winner for 1983, is a novel that has been growing on me ever since I finished it the other day. As I was reading it, I didn't think all that much of this thin, rather spare novel. But in the days since I have developed something akin to a fondness for this little book, and I'm trying to figure out why.

One thing I really like about the book, and liked from the start, was that it had a definite sense of both time and place. Ironweed is set in Albany, in 1938, and deals with the memories of Francis Phelan, an ex-baseball player and current bum. Kennedy captures both Phelan's current life as a man who would likely be a bum even without the Depression and also the early twentieth century life that brought him to his degradation. Francis has lead a deadly and death-filled life, as a labor protester who caused the death of a scab, as a violent drunk who killed a fellow vagrant in a fight, and as a negligent father who dropped his infant son and caused his death. Throughout the novel these and other dead men appear to Francis and confront him. This was an authorial device I didn't take to right away, but as the novel went along these interludes made more sense and seemed to humanize Francis in a crucial way.

Kennedy does run into a problem of excess, an odd problem for such a short novel, but a problem nonetheless. Occasionally, and too infrequently not to be jarring, Kennedy will break into the narrative and seem to be talking to the audience directly. It's like he's shouting at you to pay attention because he really likes these sentences more than the others, and it's a rather unnecessary and regrettable choice.

Perhaps the thing I like best about Ironweed is something I wasn't really aware of until after I had finished it. During the novel there are several promising plotlines that are seemingly abandoned, including a juicy bit about Francis' son Billy being involved in a kidnapping. It seems almost unconscionable that Kennedy would leave these avenues unexplored, but it turns out that Kennedy has written other novels with these characters.

This is something I wish authors would do more often. I love when authors use the same characters throughout their works. Faulkner did it often with the prominent families of Yoknapatopha County and Salinger did it with the Glass Family. It really allows for greater development of characters. Kennedy's Albany Cycle (the name given to all his novels about these characters) apparently stretches back to the Civil War and includes novels about several characters only briefly mentioned in Ironweed.

Ironweed paints a disturbing account of what's its like to be hopeless and downtrodden without being able or willing to change it. It's also about the unbelievable will to go on living a life that is full of humiliation and despair. It is above all, a novel that will stick with you.

Next? Well, as much as I'd like to read Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (the novel which explores the kidnapping) I've already started on Richard Russo's The Risk Pool.

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