Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815
With the publication of Ironweed in 1983, Kennedy suddenly found himself at the forefront of contemporary American fiction. This third novel of Kennedy’s Albany cycle received wide critical acclaim, winning both the National Book Critics Circle Award (1983-1984) and the Pulitzer Prize (1984). Ironically, Ironweed was initially rejected by thirteen publishing houses. Because of the commercial failings of Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, the editors at Viking were reluctant to undertake the publication of another Kennedy novel. A scolding letter from novelist Bellow, however, Kennedy’s first fiction writing teacher, changed their minds and gave Viking the idea of reissuing Kennedy’s two previous novels and marketing the trilogy as what Bellow called the Albany cycle. In his letter, Bellow reprimanded the editors at Viking, saying, “That the author of Billy Phelan should have a manuscript kicking around looking for a publisher is disgraceful.”
In Ironweed, Kennedy continues his story of the fictional Phelan family and focuses his narrative on Billy’s father, Francis. Among other ties to the previous Albany novels is the brief appearance of Marcus Gorman, the narrator of Legs; he serves as Francis’s lawyer in Ironweed. In Kennedy’s Albany cycle, the cast of characters usually overlaps slightly from one book to another. While the reappearances and intertwining plots are interesting to note, each novel in the Albany cycle is self-contained and ultimately stands on its own, independent of its predecessors.
In both Legs and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, the narrators themselves develop into main characters and supply important secondary plots. lronweed, however, is told from a third-person instead of a first-person point of view, and the character of narrator is thus eliminated. Ironweed is the story of one man’s physical and emotional struggle for survival and redemption. All the narrative energy and insight is focused on this one main character, Francis Phelan.
A man haunted by his past, Francis has been wandering from flophouse to flophouse after walking out on his family twenty-two years ago. The novel spans two days and two nights, Halloween and All Saints’ Day in 1938. Francis has returned to his hometown of Albany, lured by the city’s election and a crooked politician’s offer of five dollars per vote. Eager to make some easy money, Francis has voted twenty-one times. Caught in the act, he is now spending his Halloween digging graves in a local cemetery to pay his legal expenses.
A former major-league third baseman, Francis had abandoned his wife and two children after the tragic death of his thirteen-day-old son. Francis accidentally dropped the infant while changing his diapers and now bears the grim responsibility of his own son’s death. His newborn son was not the only person to die at Francis’s hands. In a trolley-workers’ strike, he killed a scab with a blow from a well-tossed rock; over the years, Francis has been witness to more than two dozen other deaths.
The opening scene of Ironweed finds Francis in an Albany graveyard, face-to-face with the ghosts of these and other victims of his past violence and neglect. In this fictional world where the line between fantasy and reality is obscured, the dead are very much alive, watching with great interest those they left behind. As Francis rides into the cemetery, his mother fidgets in her grave while his father, amused by his wife’s nervousness, smokes a pipe and reflects on how much his son has changed. With an elegiac tone and at times surrealistic style, Kennedy is able to make these strange grumblings from the dead seem natural, even believable.
Francis lives on the streets and inhabits a dirty world of depressed and diseased winos. He moves from flophouses to missions to hobo jungles with a frail woman named Helen, his companion in homelessness. Shifting from past to present, reality to illusion, Kennedy vividly creates this haunted world of the bums where Francis seeks refuge from his disturbing past.
In one of the book’s most moving scenes, the fifty-eight-year-old Francis returns home to his family with a turkey under his arm for dinner. Reunited with his faithful wife, Francis is shocked to learn that she has never blamed him for their son’s death, never even told anyone that it was Francis who dropped the baby. In a departure from the fast-paced journalistic style of his previous novels, Kennedy uses poetic prose, compassionate yet unsentimental, to show a man coming to terms with his own sense of guilt.
A passage from The Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Wildflowers serves as an epigraph for the book and explains that ironweed is a common flowering weed with a particularly tough stem. Indeed, Francis is resilient like the ironweed of the title. He is a survivor, an unromantic antihero caught in a seemingly never-ending quest for forgiveness from both the dead and the living.