Note: After a rather extensive hiatus during which I, along with the rest of you, witnessed the birth of an exciting new era for America and the world, I return with this brief review of William Kennedy's novel Ironweed.
William Kennedy’s 1983 novel Ironweed was recommended to me by a writing teacher who was discussing the treatment of time in fiction. By this he meant all dimensions of time from how the narrative present and the past and future events surrounding it are portrayed to how the pacing of the story is handled. It is the third book in Kennedy’s Albany cycle, a series of novels of early 20th century America that are centered around the character of Francis Phelan, a professional baseball player who becomes, in the end, an aging hobo on the streets of Albany during the Depression. Ironweed is the story of those hobo days. In it, Kennedy conjures the characters of the earlier stories by bringing the hallucinations of the drunken and emaciated Francis right into the scene. Kennedy introduces this device, which becomes so central to the story, in the opening scene, in which Francis is riding along in a truck through a cemetery. Fittingly, it is Francis’s parents who are conjured first:
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 (pp. 1–2).
Using this device, gangsters, bums, and former ballplayers are brought into the room with Francis as he struggles to protect life and limb against impossible odds. The old dead are joined by new dead, and the tragic years of Francis’s life unfold and interweave with heart-wrenching clarity.
Through this device, a story that has a narrative present spanning only a couple of days is able to span a lifetime. Francis relives tender moments like his teen love affair with a neighbor woman, and he relives just as vividly all the gruesome happenings his uncontrollable temper has wrought. We see and feel the connections between the two, and in so doing, see and feel the interconnections in our own lives.
The pacing of this novel is (to use what is apparently becoming my favorite word) languid. The events surge and wallow, as events in the lives of the destitute often do. A woman is found inebriated and freezing, and time jolts forward; the same woman is found frozen to death, and time drips along at a trickle. An evening wasted in a bar becomes a stage for new losses and failures, while another evening in a friend’s apartment is loaded up with the characters and the baggage of an earlier life. The scenes are filled, one way or another, but the movement is controlled by the steady hand of the writer.
There is, of course, more to Ironweed than masterful management of the dimension of time. It is a gripping account of an era created by a man who never saw that era, a staggering indictment of the present day delivered through a faithful portrayal of a simpler, but equally devastating time. And it is a story of love made undeniably real by the almost complete absence of outward expressions of love, sentiment, or even admiration. There is also some wonderful character work here, with Francis so clearly mirrored off characters like the crafty and vulnerable Helen and the simple-minded Rudy, and character arcs so expertly interwoven to create a balance of devastating emotion that holds the reader for page after page.