I admire the way William Kennedy’s Ironweed faithfully depicts a particular time and place, an era, and a universal sentiment that remains applicable today. How many of us wake in the morning refreshed, forming new aims, and quickly meet with practical challenges–personal, political, or both–then lie our heads at night to close our eyes against all of it, knowing how and where we lie our heads is subject to wide judgment.
Francis Phelan represents both the down-trodden and the resilient. In 240 pages and a 48 hour period of narrative time, we roam the streets of Albany during the Great Depression with Francis and his side-kick, Helen Archer.
We see hunger, guilt, joy, and death in the day in a life that represents all of the days of a life. We witness the raw want of forgiveness, not of sin, as Helen says, but of decision. We glimpse ghosts from the past as they appear to accompany the present.
We examine need in perspective, a simple prop, one thin shoelace, as it represents the ties we form through connection and compassion, and an inexplicable will to walk on.
Ironweed is a story that is read and remembered. Third in a trilogy, it stands alone as one of the greatest books written in the past century, a contemporary classic. If you haven’t read it, do. You may find yourself surprisingly buoyed by Francis Phelan’s singular response to a plural existence.