William Kennedy is a former newspaperman who now teaches writing at the State University of New York in Albany. Each of his four novels has been set in Albany, a town he has made his fictional base. A lifelong resident, Kennedy knows the streets, the people, the history, and the legends of the place; his novels project the palpable reality of the city and its largely Irish population. At the same time, however, as James Joyce did with Dublin in Ulysses (1922)—the author and the book most clearly echoed in Ironweed—Kennedy goes beyond the straight reality and enriches it through imaginative reconstruction, sees it through his own figures and patterns and myths. In Kennedy’s hands, Albany becomes a world in which the past and the present, the living and the dead, the actual and the unreal, all intermix in a portrait of lyric beauty and harsh realism.
Ironweed is loosely connected to Kennedy’s earlier books by more than setting. Legs (1975), which describes the last days of the gangster “Legs” Diamond, is told by Marcus Gorman, a lawyer mentioned in Ironweed. The events of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (1978) are narrated by Martin Daugherty, a newspaperman who also figures in Ironweed. Indeed, the events of Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game have only recently occurred when the present action of Ironweed takes place. More directly, the main character in Ironweed is Francis Phelan, Billy’s roaming father, who returns to Albany and his home after twenty-two years on the bum, and some of the events and characters detailed in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game are recounted or reappear in Ironweed. Still, Ironweed is a separate novel and need not be read in connection with its predecessors, although such knowledge does enhance the book.
Ironweed takes place in Albany over two days and two nights, Halloween and All Saints’ Day of 1938. Francis Phelan and his friend Rudy, a dull-witted tramp who is dying of stomach cancer, are earning a few dollars by digging graves. Francis owes fifty dollars to the lawyer Marcus Gorman, who has defended him in court against charges that he registered to vote twenty-one times for the Democratic Party. Francis has gone to work for a short time to pay off Gorman. Buried in this graveyard are Francis’ parents and his thirteen-day-old son, Gerald, who died of a broken neck when Francis dropped him while changing his diapers twenty-two years ago, the act that set him on the run and separated him from his wife, Annie, and his two other children, Billy and Margaret. During the intervening years, he has lived with the guilt of Gerald’s death and also of others, for Francis Phelan has lived a life marked by violence. As a boy, he witnesses his father’s horrible death when Michael Phelan is hit by a train as he walks toward him; Francis is the first to reach his twisted body. As a young man, Francis kills a scab trolleyman named Harold Allen during the strike of 1901, braining him with an expertly thrown rock. That death, only partly accidental, results in others, as the soldiers protecting the trolley fire against the mob of which Francis is a part, killing two bystanders. Later that same day, on the run from possible pursuers, he watches helplessly while an escaped convict named Aldo Campione is shot down as he frantically tries to reach the train on which Francis is leaving town, grasping futilely for his outstretched hand.
Francis is able to return to Albany after the strike, entering underground legend as one of the heroes of the incident. He marries and begins to play professional baseball with the Washington Senators, leaving his growing family each spring for months on the road and adding to his local fame. After Gerald’s death, however, he runs away. In his travels, he kills Rowdy Dick Doolan, a crazed tramp who tries to cut off Francis’ feet with a meat cleaver in order to steal his shoes. Francis fights viciously with many others over the years to protect himself and his own. In all, he witnesses more than two dozen deaths, “Bodies in alleys, bodies in gutters, bodies anywhere, were part of his eternal landscape: a physical litany of the dead.”
Francis’ penchant for violence is symbolized by his scarred and mutilated hand, which once caught and threw baseballs with grace and skill but which has also killed and maimed. “If you think I won’t fight for what’s mine, take a look,” he tells Rosskam, the junk man with whom he works on All Saints’ Day. “That hand’s seen it all. I mean the worst. Dead men took their last ride on that hand.” At the same time, he feels almost betrayed by his hands. “I got the idea that my hands do things on their own,” he says...
(The entire section is 1957 words.)