Ironweed is a novel written by William Kennedy, released in 1983. A film version would later be released in 1987.
I took interest in this book after reading that it was one of Hunter S. Thompson’s favorites, along with Kennedy being one of Thompson’s long-time correspondents.
The novel takes place during the Great Depression, specifically in 1938, and tells the story of Francis Phelan; a bum who’s abandoned his family after a series of unfortunate events.
From the beginning, we see that Francis isn’t like the other bums in the story, or at least wants us to believe that he is different. His tough exterior is further exemplified through mental flashbacks of events in his life, particularly the event in which he accidentally killed his baby son, and the event in which he purposely killed a trolley worker. As the story goes on, we learn that Francis has killed many people in his life, yet doesn’t seem to feel any guilt until the end of the novel, when guilt seems to be all he has left. He is haunted by the ghosts of several dead people, some of whom he did not kill, but still had an unexpectedly profound impact on his living thoughts.
Kennedy writes in a language that one would not expect to find in a book about vagrants, as bums are thought to be unintelligent, dirty and rotten people in our society. While we certainly come across characters who fit this description, we see that beyond the rot and filth, these people still have a history, a past, and a soul….although they may not necessarily have a long future ahead of them. Kennedy further uses subtle parallels between the events and people in Francis’s life, such as naming a bar Francis goes to, “The Gilded Cage,” while describing Francis’s first love, Katrina, as a woman who is stuck in an upscale residence with extreme passion to break out of those fraudulent walls. Katrina also mentions St. Anthony in parts of her dialogue in past tense, while in the present tense we see Francis’s newest love, Helen, seek refuge in a modern-day St. Anthony’s church.
Despite Francis’s killings, we learn to feel sympathy for him. From the novel’s beginning we see that even someone as stubborn and hopeless as Francis may be able to redeem himself, and that he does. We root for Francis because he’s not afraid to admit who he is and he who has been; a murderer, thief, bum, drunk, and abandoner. We learn he still has values and admires those who have values as well, such as his former wife, who never told a soul in the world that her newborn son died as a result of being dropped carelessly by her husband (Francis.)
Below are some quotes from the book that I felt were meaningful. Still, I urge you to read this novel.
“Rudy, a friend for about two weeks, now seemed to Francis a fellow traveler on a journey to a nameless destination in another country. He was simple, hopeless and lost, as lost as Francis himself., though somewhat younger, dying of cancer, afloat in ignorance, weighted with stupidity, inane, sheeplike, and given to fits of weeping over his lostness; and yet there was something in him that buoyed Francis’s spirit. They were both questing for the behavior that was proper to their unutterable dreams. They both knew intimately the etiquette , the taboos, the protocol of bums. By their talk to each other they understood that they shared a belief in the brotherhood of the desolate; yet in the scars of their eyes they confirmed that no such fraternity had ever existed, that the only brotherhood they belonged to was the one that asked that enduring question: How do I get through the next twenty minutes? They feared drys, cops, jailers, bosses, moralists, crazies, truth-tellers, and one another. They loved story-tellers, liars, whores, fighters, singers, collie dogs that wagged their tails, and generous bandits.”
“Nobody suffers like a love left behind.”
“Francis began to run, and in so doing, reconstituted a condition that was as pleasurable to his being as it was natural: the running of bases after the crack of the bat, the running from accusation, the running from the calumny of men and woman, the running from family, from bondage, from destitution of spirit through ritualistic straightening, the running, finally, in a quest for pure flight as a fulfilling mannerism of the spirit.”
“Love, you are my member rubbed raw. Love, you are an unstoppable fire. You burn me, love. I am singed, blackened. Love, I am ashes.
“Whiskey is magic and will cure all your troubles.”
“God made me in his image, and so why should I not believe that God too is an innocent monster, loving the likes of me, this seductress of children, this caged animal with blood and intestines in her teeth, embracing her own bloody aprons and then kneeling at the alter of all that is holy in the penitential pose of all hypocrites.”
“…When we love with all our might, our silly little selves are already dead and we have no more fear of dying.”
“…A kiss is as expressive of a way of life as is a smile, or a scarred hand. Kisses come up from below, or down from above. They come from the brain sometimes, sometimes from the heart, and sometimes just from the crotch. Kisses that taper off after a while come only from the heart and leave the taste of sweetness. Kisses that come from the brain tend to try and work things out inside other folks’ mouths and don’t hardly register. And kisses from the crotch and the brain put together, with maybe a little bit of heart, well they are kisses that can send you right around the bend for your whole life.”
“…When great souls were being extinguished, the forces of darkness walked abroad in the world, filling it with lightning and strife and fire.”