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William Kennedy: Ironweed

The novel takes place in Albany during the Great Depression during a forty-eight hour period. Francis Phelan, father of Billy, has returned to Albany in 1938. He had left twice before. The first time was in 1901 when, during a strike, he had thrown a rock that had killed a strikebreaker. He had returned to become a top baseball player but, in 1916, when drunk, he dropped and killed his thirteen-day old son, Gerald, and left thinking his wife, Annie, would not forgive him. In fact he briefly returned before, once for his mother’s funeral, but his sister had rebuffed him and again working for a few weeks as a mechanic but disguised with a beard. This time he has come back to earn some money, having lived life as a bum. His source of income is the McCalls, for whom he is going to stuff ballots. However he is arrested before he gets the money and has to work as a grave digger to earn some money, working in the cemetery where Gerald is buried. He talks to Gerald’s spirit and, the next day, when working at the Rosskam’s junkyard, he meets the spirits of the various men whose deaths he had been responsible for. When he finally goes back to his house, to his surprise, Annie has forgiven him and welcomes him back. Annie and his children ask him to stay but he goes off to a hobo camp. When it is raided by legionnaires, he kills one of the legionnaires, defending his friend. He later finds that his fellow hobo, Helen, has died. In the end he does go home but stays in the attic, though Kennedy does give us a somewhat ambiguous ending.

The epigraph to the book is from Dante’s Purgatory, so we know that it is about redemption and, of course, Francis is seeking redemption for his sins, not just for the death of Gerald but for the others he has killed. We have met him before – his return is seen in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game – and we know him to have been a good baseball player. What Kennedy does in this book is to show us a man who is a down-and-out, a bum, but, who nevertheless, has his own character, his own resilience and his own history. He is not, in short, just any bum but an ironweed, one who survives, no matter what.

Publishing history

First published 1983 by Viking