Chapter 10: “Ironweed” by William Kennedy (1984)

“…the only brotherhood they belonged to was the one that asked that enduring question: How do I get through the next twenty minutes? They feared drys, cops, jailers, bosses, moralists, crazies, truth-tellers, and one another. they loved storytellers, liars, whores, fighters, singers, collie dogs that wagged their tails, and generous bandits. Rudy, thought Francis: he’s just a bum, but who ain’t?”

I am currently on an impressive streak: the last four books I’ve read (A Death In the Family, American Pastoral, The Old Man and the Sea, and Ironweed) along this Pulitzer journey have been phenomenal. I’m almost as excited about this little four book winning streak as I am about my beloved Chicago Cubs current four game winning streak.

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Maybe it was the curious, mysterious title of the book; maybe it was the resemblance the man on the cover has with Pa; maybe it was the Great Depression era subject matter that so closely ties in with our country’s current economic condition, but when I first set out on this journey, William Kennedy’s 1984 Pulitzer-winning novel, Ironweed, was immediately on my list of titles I was most looking forward to reading. Just like most of the other titles that won the Pulitzer, I had never heard of Ironweed, nor of William Kennedy for that matter. But there was something about this book’s presence on my shelf that I was drawn to—I really couldn’t wait to read it, but Joshua had no interest in it whatsoever, so I kept putting it off. Finally, after reading three amazing Pulitzers in a row, I decided to just go for it.

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What was most surprising about this novel was its raw beauty.

I was very surprised at how beautifully this book was written and how talented of a wordsmith William Kennedy is. There were actually several portions of the novel that seemed almost Joycean in nature. Going in, I was expecting something akin to The Grapes of Wrath—something gritty, destitute, and barren. What I found, however, was that Ironweed was actually quite romantic.

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Ironweed is the story of a homeless man named Francis Phelan—a former professional baseball player who returns to his hometown after 22 years of running away from it to confront his past and his ghosts. The unbearable guilt and shame of having blood on his hands drives Francis away and back again on Halloween, 1938, to his hometown of Albany, New York. During his brief visit, Kennedy introduces the reader to a series of misfits and vagabonds, down-and-outers and bums that Francis must make amends with—whether he does so successfully or not, on the other hand, seems to be a minute detail. I suppose, in the long run, it’s the thought that counts.

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Throughout the novel, peculiar as this may sound, I was constantly reminded of the John Cusack movie, High Fidelity. Much like Francis Phelan, in this movie, John Cusack takes it upon himself to contact his top five ex-girlfriends to try to make sense of their breakups. He, of course, is inspired to do so by the Bruce Springsteen that is his conscience.

Now, I know this seems like a silly comparison, but that is, in essence, what Ironweed is about—learning to cope, learning to deal with ghosts, learning to make peace with the past, and learning to look to the future. And, of course, there’s a valuable lesson to be learned there for all of us.

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