HE HAS A HISTORY. I mean, each of us has a history—but this Francis Phelan, he has one about three
times his own weight. As he rides into Saint Agnes Cemetery at the beginning of William Kennedy's Ironweed, I
swear you can hear his spine creak under the mass of it. He passes gravestone after gravestone, and for
those with familiar names, he turns his head away. This is his triumphant return to Albany, New York,
and there are graves to be dug today.
There are graves to be dug every day.
Francis Phelan once played big-league baseball; he once dropped his infant son, killing him; once
he ran from his life, his wife and his children; and more than once he's killed men. His guilt is
the driving force of his adult life—and as he returns as a bum and a drunk to the streets of
Albany, this guilt is embodied in a series of faces that seem interminable, seem impenetrable while
he tries to explain to each his past sins. Phelan's parents, long dead, observe him from their
graves as he passes (his father smoking the roots of grass in his pipe). A man with a split
skull asks Francis, silently, "Why did you kill me?" His thirteen-day-old son demands,
demands, that Francis embark on that redemptive quest he so fears.
These ghosts are a small indulgence, a minor divergence from what is otherwise a novel of harsh
realism. The reality for Francis Phelan is that he must care for his own, who are helpless, frail, even dying.
They are mainly aging and homeless. Helen, his companion of nine years, Rudy, his compatriot, Pee Wee
and Old Shoes and various others—all a bit weaker than he, somehow. Francis is holding
back the seemingly-inevitable tide of their passing, not by good will so much as constitution
(Tall Ironweed, the plant from which this novel takes its name, is renowned for having a very tough
stem). Phelan's strength of character is at best questionable, but his ability to withstand is
something beyond extraordinary.
KENNEDY OPENS THIS NOVEL with a bit of verse from Dante's Purgatorio: "To course o'er better
waters now hoists sail the little bark of my wit, leaving behind her a sea so cruel." He makes it clear
from the start: This is a story of suffering, of the Hell that was the Great Depression, of the Hell
that is guilt and self-imposed exile; this is also a story of redemption.
Robert Frost once wrote, "Home is the place where, when you go
there, / They have to take you in." I've always hated him a little for that.
It may be true in the artistic sense, that it hits you a good one in the gut, but in reality I think it
both cheapens the idea of family and exists in an imaginary world where all wrongs
can be forgiven. Ironweed takes place in our world, where doors are often slammed and dead-bolted,
where the final recourse is also the least likely to succeed.
Francis Phelan could be left on the doorstep of what was once his home, gift-turkey thawing in his arms,
his new shirt soiled, his wife and children finally and forever closed to him. He could, certainly, and
the importance of his homecoming lies in that potential, in the twenty-two years that separate one conversation
from the next, in the creation of family on-the-spot much more than its resumption.
The power of homecomings is that they are so charged with this potential—to devastate, to
revive—and yet so very close to our experience. A lesser writer might fall into the
soft fog of sentimentality in these moments; Kennedy holds onto his core of realism and finds
here a truth, in guilt and resentment and weariness, much larger than simply the artistic.
IN ANY NOVEL, IN any story, the second-most-important section is the beginning. The first sentence,
the first chapter, the opening. In Ironweed, the story begins in a cemetery, it begins with its hero
digging graves, it begins with Francis Phelan stumbling for the first time upon the grave of his infant son. Wisest
of the dead, most well-protected from the elements, the boy offers a prophecy:
Gerald, through an act of silent will, imposed on his father the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation for abandoning the family. You will not know, the child silently said, what these acts are until you have performed them all. And after you have performed them you will not understand that they were expiatory any more than you have understood all the other expiation that has kept you in such prolonged humiliation. Then, when these final acts are complete, you will stop trying to die because of me.
After Phelan's homecoming, he plunges again into the violence and frailty of that "sea so cruel."
As he steps back into that world he's inhabited for two decades, it is clear that his expiation, his
atonement, is incomplete. He is waiting.
In any story, the most important section is the ending. Gerald, here, is acutely aware of the ending for his father,
and we, as readers, have our suspicions. Francis only knows that he is waiting. There is peace, I think,
in any resolution, in any ending, and he is a man with no conception of peace.
It is all the more powerful, then, that he does in his own stumbling way come to it.
IRONWEED HAS WON BOTH the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction,
and is listed among Modern Library's 100 best fiction books of
the twentieth century. It is a one of Kennedy's Albany Cycle of novels, each concerning the city of Albany,
New York (and many involving the Phelan family). The others include Legs,
Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, Quinn's Book, Very Old Bones,
The Flaming Corsage, and Roscoe.
I've not read any of the others yet, but on the strength of Ironweed, I intend to.
Ironweed by William Kennedy
227 pages, Copyright © 1979, 1981, 1983 by William Kennedy
ISBN: 0-14-007020-6 (paperback)