Ironweed, by William Kennedy

“My guilt is all I have left. If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing.”

I had an English teacher once who told me quite emphatically that you can’t open an essay or review with a quote. Well, he was obviously wrong, and I choose to ignore him.

Kennedy’s novel is a story about bums: a riches to rags tale primarily about Francis Phelan, an ex-major league baseball player who lost the plot after accidentally dropping his 13-day old son and killing him. Having returned to his hometown of Albany in 1938 he is given employment at the cemetery to enable him to pay off some outstanding legal debts. Whilst there, he sees the ghosts of his parents as well as that of his son as they lie in their graves. In fact wherever Phelan goes, he is confronted by the ghosts of his past, having conversations with them and revisiting the events that led to their deaths. Many of them are dead because of Phelan, reminders of his violent past and the guilt he feels.

As Phelan gradually makes his way back to the family he abandoned after the death of his son, he comes to view his guilt as a driving force, a burden that is his own, a means of paying penance. He is accompanied by his long-term, bum girlfriend, Helen, and his old friend Rudy. As they wax lyrical about the life of the bum and other bums around them, Phelan never sees his way clear of the life he has chosen, sinking further into the drunken abyss. However, just like the Ironweed plant which extracts nourishment from the impoverished soil it grows in, he remains resilient and tough.

William Kennedy is testimony to the fact that perseverance can pay off. Rejected by eleven major publishing companies, Ironweed was finally published by The Viking Press, despite Kennedy having had three successful novels already to his name. Well, the joke was on the other publishing companies in the end, as Ironweed went on to win the 1984 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award. It is also number 92 on the Modern Library’s top 100 list and was made into a movie in 1987 starring none other than Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep, both nominated for Academy Awards for their roles.

So, if these accolades haven’t convinced you enough that Ironweed is worthy of picking up, then I don’t know what possibly could.

You can borrow this book through the inter-library loan service offered by the Thunder Bay Public Library. This service is offered at no cost to patrons.


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