The Modern Library List of Books

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92. Ironweed, by William Kennedy

William Kennedy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Ironweed, proves that mother was right: you can't judge a book by its cover. Literally. My copy is exactly similar to the dour beige cover that heads this post, and as I picked it up, I wasn't sure if that wrinkled man, in his rumpled fedora, represented William Kennedy (in lieu of a back-cover author photo) or Francis Phelan, the down-and-out protagonist of the book. Either way, I opened it with very specific expectations. It wasn't just the gloomy palette or that, to my mind, lopsided mugs hint at a rough-and-tumble life. Nor was it the fact that fedoras (with or without pencils and PRESS cards) are the official uniform of hard-drinking, chain-smoking reporters (circa 1920), schlepping around cameras with exposed flashbulbs, and that my all-time favourite, 20's-era reporter was Ernest Hemingway, who filed stories at my hometown paper, The Toronto Star. It was the aggregate muck of these associations, coupled with the first sentence of the back-cover blurb: “Francis Phelan, ex-ballplayer, part-time gravedigger, full-time drunk, has hit bottom,” that convinced me I was in for a hard-luck tale told in a masculine, muscular prose. 
I was wrong.

And I was stunned. I felt like the reader in Italo Calvino's if on a winter's night a traveller, who finds himself constantly surprised by his mis-bound book, so big was the chasm between what I expected and what I got. 
Sure, in summary , the story is wretched enough: Francis Phelan, pro-ballplayer turned alcoholic bum, is so racked with guilt for his role in the accidental death of his infant son that he abadoned his family 20-odd years ago. Hoboing has taken him across the country and back again: right back to his hometown, Albany, and a jail cell. Francis is picked up on an outstanding warrant (election fraud), and when the story makes the papers, filial duty brings his son, Billy, down to the jailhouse to bail him out. Stuffing some money in Francis' hand, Billy makes it clear that Francis is still welcome at home. Francis spends the next few days lingering around town, digging graves, hauling junk, ostensibly collecting money to secure a bed for himself and his girlfriend, Helen, while mustering up the courage to make an overdue visit home. 
I know: it sounds like a gutter tour, snapshots of a wasted life. But, from the very first page it was apparent: Ironweed is a fantastical exploration of the redemption of the soul.

Francis's mother twitched nervously in her grave as the truck carried him nearer to her; and Francis's father lit his pipe, smiled at his wife's discomfort, and looked out from his own bit of sod to catch a glimpse of how much his son had changed since the train accident.

Dead people, lighting pipes in the graves, looking on? This was magical realism! My literary prejudices rose up, full-force. Certain milieus seem perfectly suited for magical realistic treatment. The Colombian rainforest (One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez). African-American life, post-Civil War (Beloved by Toni Morrison). Literary society in Soviet Russia (The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov). They all have something – intensity, sorrow, absurdity – to support the fantastical. But Albany, New York? Granted, I've never been there, but I couldn't stop thinking about the Walden Galleria. No wait, that's Buffalo. 
But, Francis has (unwittingly) chosen a special time wind up in Albany: All Saint's Day. It's a time when the barrier is said to be thin between the worlds and the dead walk the earth; a phenomenon Francis can't escape from, for everywhere he turns, it seems he stumbles upon a ghost. Harold Allen; the scab Francis killed during a strike with a rock. The Fiddler; Francis' friend, who had his skull split open by a soldier in the strike. Aldo Campione; a horse thief, who fell from a moving train while running from the cops. 
Of course, not all of Francis' shades have been felled by violence. There are his newlywed parents and his married neighbor, Katrina Daugherty. Katrina was a woman of elegance, charm and generosity. She was also “a caged woman with a rabbit in her teeth”, and responsible for Francis' sexual awakening. The scenes involving the two of them of are among the most moving in the book. And while Katrina is otherworldy in life, so she is in death: a profusion of dandelions cover her grave, so strange and spectacular as to attract tourists.

But, as lovely as Kennedy's prose is, and as moving are his characters (especially Katrina and Helen), we mustn't forget: Francis roams Albany for a reason. In the first pages of the book, Francis visits his infant son, Gerald's, grave. It is the first time he has thought about his son's death, the first time he has acknowledged his guilt. Gerald, for his part:
imposed on his father the pressing obligation to perform 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, anymore 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.
And so, as we follow Francis, and watch him do good, along with the bad, we're never really sure how the sum tallies up. When Francis finally makes his visit home, he's welcomed with open arms, but forgiveness isn't enough to keep him there. Strangely, it is the lingering heat of yet, another murder, that brings him home, we think, for good. Tainted redemption, to say the least. 
But then, perhaps we, like Francis, are not to understand, how exactly it was, that he redeemed his soul.  


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