Saturday, 3 December 2011


Ironweed - William Kennedy

Here is a romance of loss and despair. Winter light captured in a greasy wine bottle sparkles like the Hope Diamond; shattered lives form and reform like a million sparrows in an autumn sunset, freed from time by the red eyed gaze of  dead companions and adversaries. And through the cracks in broken pavements, abandoned baseball diamonds, grave rectangles of final repose and hobo jungles sprout weeds of unseasonal vigour fertilised by guilt and love; wine and memory.

Francis and Helen bound by weeds of iron, and poor doomed Rudy carrying his own end like a secret he couldn't keep, "the etiquette, the taboos, the protocol of bums," the non existent "brotherhood of the desolate."

Kennedy has crafted a lyric beauty from the stuff of broken lives. Francis Phelan hit the road after he dropped Gerald, his thirteen day old child. When Francis and Rudy get a job filling in graves Francis visits Gerald's grave for the first time. "Gerald Michael Phelan, his gravestone said, born April 13, 1916, died April 26, 1916. Born on the 13th, lived 13 days. An unlucky child who was much loved."* Is this the beginning or the end of a journey? From beyond the grave Gerald "imposed on his father the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation." "Rudy and Francis stepped out into the frosty darkness of six o'clock on the final night of October 1938, the unruly night when grace is always in short supply, and the old and the new dead walk abroad in this land."

And some of the dead belong, in a way, to Francis. "If it draws blood or breaks heads," said Francis, "I know how it tastes." He has killed, and the ghosts of these dead wander the pages of this book, following, watching and talking to Francis. "Both men's heads were laid open and bloody, but not bleeding, their unchanging wounds obviously healed over and as much a part of their aerial bodies as their eyes, which burned with an entropic passion common among murdered men."

Francis killed a scab with a stone during a trolley strike. This, alongside his baseball career, makes him a hero in Albany. It also was the first time Francis ran from Albany, watching a man try to outrun the police and hop the boxcar Francis was in, shot dead while holding the hand that Francis offered him. "His lesson to Francis was this: that life is full of caprice and missed connections, that thievery is wrong, especially if you get caught, that even Italians cannot outrun bullets, that a proffered hand in a moment of need is a beautiful thing."

Francis has been keeping company with Helen for most of the past decade, with interludes of sobriety and casual work framed by years on the streets facing the cold, hunger and thirst. They mostly treat each other well and see each other as the last loves in their respective lives. They drift together and apart over the days of this book. Helen has a huge tumour in her stomach and has been unwell, although she was told the tumour is benign. She was pregnant once with their child but miscarried.

"Helen now sees the spoiled seed of a woman's barren dream: a seed that germinates and grows into a shapeless, windblown weed blossom of no value to anything, even its own species, for it produces no seed of its own; a mutation that grows only into the lovely day like all other wild things, and then withers, and perishes, and falls, and vanishes.
The Helen blossom."

 A bum among bums Francis "remained full of the awareness of rampant martyrdom surrounding him: martyrs to wrath, to booze, to failure, to loss, to hostile weather." Kennedy reminds us of their humanity and gives them dignity. They are all familiars of death, and the fact that their deaths may not be mourned. As the cold intensifies, every night spent outside could be your last. "Foxy Phil Tooker, a skinny little runt, he froze all scrunched up, knees under his chin. 'Stead of straightenin' him out, they buried him in half a coffin."

The Bum's Anthem  On his journey Francis meets an old comrade in drink, who was once a famous singer: "here he was, disguised behind a mustache, another cripple, his ancient, weary eyes revealing to Francis the scars of a blood brother, a man for whom life had been a promise unkept in spite of great success, a promise now and forever unkeepable. The man was singing a song that had grown old not from time but from wear. The song is frayed. The song is worn out." Helen, too, was a singer and she finds some redemption when she sings, a connection with the life she could have led. Past success and failure haunts Francis, especially here in Albany, his home town. He often seems adrift in time more than space.  "As he walked, the cobblestones turned to granite, houses became stores, life aged, died, renewed itself, and a vision of what had been and what might have been intersected in an eye that could not really remember one or interpret the other." But turns have been taken, and appear irreversible: "he knew that he would be this decayed self he had been so long in becoming, through all the endless years of his death." Everywhere he goes these  turnings are remembered. Riding a Rag and Bone* cart through his old neighbourhood he sees an empty lot which had been a neighbour's house and the scene of his first sexual experience, seduced by a married woman. Her shade talks like a figure from myth - "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 altar of all that is holy in the penitential pose of all hypocrites." Francis thought her teetering on the edge of madness and was protective and vulnerable: "He held her as he would a crystal vase, fearful not only of her fragility but of his own." On the same journey Francis sees children emerge from the local school. "Francis remembered Billy and Peg as children, similarly handed over from the old school to the same church for instruction in the ways of God, as if anyone could ever figure that one out." Will  expiation be possible with the family he abandoned. Disappointment and failure he can face, but what of hope? "There was no way he could reveal all that had brought him here. It would have meant the recapitulation not only of all his sins but of all his fugitive and fallen dreams..." Is this an allegory or a history? It can be read both ways. The presence of the dead takes us into similar realms of magic realism to Rulfo's Pedro Paramo. The characters fight for their right to exist in the real world "But that is the error; for there are no women like Helen. Helen is no symbol of lost anything..." Francis is a kind of everyman, who life has brought to his knees - "You get whipped around so much, everything comes to a standstill, even a nail. You drive it so far it comes to a stop. Keep hittin' it and the head'll break off." Seeing an old picture of himself fielding a baseball Francis meditates on "a self that did not yet know it was ruined, just as the ball, in its inanimate ignorance, did not yet know that it was going nowhere, was caught." Do our prelapsarian selves live alongside us somewhere in time? Is this a tale of the living or the dead? Let Kennedy be your Virgil and guide you across the "sea so cruel"*. Big Rock Candy Mountain as sung by Tom Waits, playing Rudy in the movie version of Ironweed

*Is it a coincidence that Gerald's short life coincides with the Easter Rising in Ireland. The refrain of Yeat's poem Easter 1916 "A terrible beauty is born" could have been the epigraph. 

*This also brought to mind Yeats, "the foul rag and bone shop of the heart." The Circus Animals Desertion

*There are many mentions of the Irish ethnicity of Francis' background, and it was an old fenian who showed him the "radical light." "Emmett Daugherty, the wild Fenian who talked so fierce and splendid and put the radical light in Francis' eye with his stories of how moneymen used workers to get rich and treated the Irish like pigdog paddyniggers.."

*"sea so cruel" - this is taken from one of the books epitaphs, itself taken from Dante's Divine Comedy.

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