2009: 56. Ironweed


“Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.”

Ironweed, William Kennedy

Books like Ironweed are why I do things like read all the Modern Library top 100 novels* - because I never would have read (or maybe even heard of) Ironweed without this list, and I really enjoyed it.  So its worth slogging though an Augie March or a Ginger Man, in order to find an Ironweed or Angle of Repose.  

Ironweed is set during the Great Depression, and tells the story of Francis Phelan, a former family man (and professional baseball player!) who has become a bum.  I almost didn’t read the book, because the blurb on the back said that it was his own culpability in the death of his infant son that lead him to alcoholism and homelessness and ever since I became a mom I cannot read about babies dying without being absolutely wrecked.  And seriously, even if you didn’t have an eight month old in your home, isn’t that just about the most depressing plot description you can possibly imagine?  Who would ever pick up a book with that as a tag line? But I am glad I overcame my own doubts, read this book, because despite the grim premise, this is a great book, and in some ways even an uplifting one.  The plot concerns Francis’s return to Buffalo, years after he deserted his family, and intertwines his general life as an alcoholic bum with his slow attempts to come to terms with his past - visiting his son’s grave, the house he grew up in and eventually making contact with his remaining family.  It is so well done - his attempts to address his past are realistic and moving, and Kennedy captures the the life of the homeless in a way that seems believable and sympathetic.  Gosh, the more I think about the book the more I realize how much I enjoyed it and how great it was.

My only quibble is a bit of a spoiler, so continue on at your own risk- I loved the ending, for sure, but I question, a bit, whether it was really realistic.  Would his family really have taken him back and forgiven him for deserting them? It’s nice to think so, and it was nice to read, but I’m not sure that I believe anyone could be as forgiving as his wife is written.  But then I also wondered whether that ending was all a dream, since the whole book contains Francis’s visions of ghosts and people he’s wronged in the past.  If it was purposely meant to be ambiguous, I think that is wonderful and a perfect ending to the book, and I think I will chose to believe that is the case (so don’t comment and tell me that it is clearly meant to be the truth and I am a fool for thinking otherwise!) 

*Well, also my type A love of lists.

Date/Place Completed:  May 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100, Book Resolutions

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017