Monday, June 27, 2011

Review: Ironweed

Ironweed is a Pulitzer Prize winning novel by William Kennedy.

The novel follows Francis Phelan, a bum, who has just recently returned to his hometown of Albany, New York.  Its been about twenty years or so since Francis was last in Albany, and he left on the some pretty bad terms after accidentally dropping his infant son, who died from the fall.  In the years that followed the incident, Francis has been a professional baseball player, wino, murderer, and most recently, gravedigger.

His return to Albany is anything but special.  He's forced to sleep on the streets, work a shitty job collecting other people's junk, and look after Helen, his lady-love of the past few years.  Francis is also haunted by the ghosts of his violent and deadly past, while he tries to muster the courage to confront the family he left behind.

What struck me as immediately compelling about Ironweed is that it is a book that pulls no punches.  Francis and his other transient friends are by no means the romanticized down-on-their-luck heroes of say an Horatio Alger novel.  There'll be no pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.  Shit, Francis doesn't even have boots, let alone bootstraps.  Francis, Helen, their pal Rudy, and the other transients that populate this tale are truly tragic; downtrodden, nearly broken humans.  Their lives are full of heartbreak, and violence, and this novel provides an unfiltered view into their world.

For me, the most impressive quality of Ironweed is the fact that Kennedy was able to make me feel like I knew Francis, his past, present, and future, inside and out, despite that fact that he is a person so unlike myself.

As a middle class white guy who grew up in rural Maine, and now lives in a quiet neighborhood in Seattle, I've had very few experiences interacting with bums/transients/homeless aside from giving them some spare change or some restaurant leftovers.  However, with Ironweed, Kennedy has made me feel like I understand these people to a certain extent.  By letting the reader walk a mile alongside Francis, Kennedy makes Francis' life and his experiences come to life on the page, which is an amazing talent, but not only did they come to life, but I feel like I understood those experiences and why Francis acted the way he did in certain circumstances. 

Ironweed is a great read and provided me with a nice little break from my usual fantasy/comic reading.  It is unlike most anything I've read due to the characters in the novel and their lives.  Filled with gallows humor and bleak horizons Ironweed is not for the faint of heart, but most definitely worth a read.  This novel put me out of my comfort zone in a good way, and I'm glad I gave it a chance.  If you are a lover of the "literary" stuff, than Ironweed is worth a read.

Grade: B

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