We are very excited to have Nymeth from Things Mean a Lot for our latest Guest Blogger Review. She’s known for her thoughtful, insightful reviews which cover several genres. She’s also responsible for a number of bad blogger points that awarded to reviewers who make you run out and get a copy of the book they’ve just reviewed.
Ironweed by William Kennedy
My guilt is all I have left. If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing, been nothing.
Set in Albany during the Great Depression, Ironweed is the story of Francis Phelan, a former baseball player who abandons his family after fatally dropping his infant son. After the accident, Francis becomes a wandering homeless alcoholic. After twenty-two years away, he returns to Albany, where he is forced to confront his past at last.
The novel takes place on Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day, and it begins at a cemetery, with Francis visiting the grave of his son Gerald for the first time. Being the kind of reader that I am, I have to highlight Ironweed’s elements of speculative fiction: Francis has conversations with the ghosts of three people whose deaths he caused, and for this reason the book has occasionally been labelled magic realism. You could of course say that the ghosts are a product of Francis’ imagination, or an embodiment of his guilt, and I wouldn’t argue with you. But then again, I often see ghosts in more symbolic or introspective terms even in books that are labelled speculative fiction. There are things that are better expressed if you leave the limits of realism behind.
As you can probably guess from the premise, Ironweed is a shattering and haunting book. But it’s not actually as depressing as you might expect a book about a homeless man overwhelmed by guilt to be. Don’t get me wrong – though there are some funny moments, it’s by no means a cheerful read. But while there’s sorrow and regret and ugliness and death, there’s also a lot of tenderness, and in the end, hope.
The novel is named after the flower Ironweed. Before the story begins, we are told that “tall Ironweed is a member of the Sunflower Family (Astereceae). It has a tall erect stem and bears deep purple-blue flower heads in loose terminal clusters (…) The name refers to the toughness of the stem.”
I’m sure this choice of title can be interpreted in several different ways, but to me it speaks of resilience, of survival against all odds. Francis survives the very worst, but the hardest thing he had to handle is perhaps the fact that he has survived in itself. In the same way, his biggest regret may be the fact that regret and guilt have consumed his whole life. He did not allow himself to move on, to start again, to live what was left of his life. But carrying on is what life does, whether one allows it to or not.
I’m sure there’s a lot in Ironweed that I missed due to my limited knowledge of American history. I’m actually very much drawn to books set in America during the Great Depression, and I’ve been meaning to pick up some more fiction as well as non-fiction about this period. (Does anyone have any suggestions?) All this to say that I expect Ironweed to be an even more rewarding read for more knowledgeable readers, as well as for myself when I return to it someday in the future.
Another thing I found interesting was the fact that there were cameos by characters from William Kennedy’s other novels. His novel Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, which I haven’t read yet, is about the surviving son Francis left behind. And Marcus Groaman, a lawyer to whom Francis owes some money, is the narrator of Legs (which I recommend perhaps even above Ironweed). I’m not sure why, but I love it when authors bring the universe of their novels together like that.
The last few lines of Ironweed are incredibly moving, but I’ll refrain from sharing them because you really do need to read them in context to feel their full impact. So instead I’ll just urge you to read the book and discover them for yourself.