William Kennedy

Ironweed

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Ironweed Summary

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Ironweed (1983) by William Kennedy chronicles three days in the life of Francis Phelan, a Depression-era drifter who must reckon with his past, the choices he has made, and the ghosts—both literal and figurative—that haunt him. The book follows Francis on his journey of redemption, which begins on the streets of Albany, New York, in 1938. He has returned to his hometown, the city where his estranged wife has continued living after Francis accidentally killed their young son, perhaps while in an alcoholic stupor. Now, Francis must deal with the pain of the past he has spent years trying to forget—and the uncertainty of what the future may hold.

The novel opens with a description of a flower known as Ironweed. Ironweed grows in the wild, and its stem is tough and sturdy. This is symbolic of Francis himself: an inherently wild nature, but strength and resiliency at his core.

The story commences on Halloween, with Francis, a former professional baseball player, having maintained his sobriety for two days straight, something of a record for him. He wants to be sober for the court date stemming from his attempts to register to vote twenty-one times. His attorney, Marcus Gorman, finds a mistake in the court documents, and the judge throws the case out. Francis, however, is still on the hook for Marcus’s fees, so he puts in a day of labor at Saint Agnes Cemetery. There he meets up with his friend and drinking buddy, Rudy, also known as Rudy the Kraut, whom he’s known for two weeks.

After work, Francis and Rudy ride the trolley through Albany. Francis reflects on his past with trolleys; he used to work on them at the North Albany carbarns before he became a drifter. During the 1901 trolley strike, Francis killed a man. Francis and Rudy chat throughout the ride, though Francis is hesitant to reveal personal details about himself, including information about his girlfriend, Helen. Rudy reveals that he has stomach cancer during the course of the conversation, and the two get off the trolley and go to a bar where they meet up with Helen and other vagrants.

That evening, Rudy leaves the bar to find a place to crash for the night, and Francis and Helen go to rent a hotel room with the money Francis earned from the day’s work. First, they walk their friend Pee Wee back to the mission, where a group of trick-or-treaters taunts Helen. They steal her purse and run, and Francis and Pee Wee can’t catch up with them. Helen is upset because both Francis’s wages from the day and her own $15 were in the handbag. Francis and Helen stay at the mission for the night.

The next day, Francis gets a job working at Rosskam’s junk shop for the day. He worries about Helen, who did not have coffee with him at the mission that morning like she usually does. Then, Francis reads a story in the paper about his son, Billy, who may have been involved in the kidnapping of a woman named Patsy McCall. The article, written by a previous neighbor of Francis’s, is supportive of Billy, and Francis is pleased.

Later that day, Francis meets up with Helen. He takes her to have sex—for cash—with a man named Finny. This doesn’t sit well with Helen, and the next day, she makes the decision to stay away from Francis. His willingness to see her used and degraded for money is too much for her to bear.

While Francis and Rosskam are out on an errand, a fire breaks out in another part of town, and traffic reroutes the two of them through Francis’s old neighborhood. At the location of the 1901 trolley strike, Francis encounters the ghost of Fiddler Quain. Fiddler’s skull had been shattered in the strike, and he had lived in a near-vegetative state for years afterward. Fiddler’s ghost tells Francis to be aware of the violence he’s committing in his own life.

Francis then decides to go visit his estranged wife, Annie, and their surviving kids. In her own way, Annie does not blame Francis for leaving them and understands he did what he felt he had to do. Francis is surprised to find himself still in the relatively good graces of the wife and children he abandoned more than two decades ago.

The novel ends on an ambiguous note. Readers never learn if Francis does indeed return to Annie, or if he continues to live on the streets. As William Kennedy explained, “What is important is that at the end he knows he can go back, whereas at the beginning, going back was not an alternative.”

Ironwood was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction in 1984. It was made into a celebrated film in 1987, starring Jack Nicholson as Francis and Meryl Streep as Helen, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances.