Monday, May 05, 2008

What I'm reading: "Ironweed" by William Kennedy

"Ironweed," by William Kennedy, not only won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1984, it creates a world that is sad and achingly beautiful.

Francis Phelan is an ex-baseball player, a self-described bum and a sometime repentant murderer. Set in 1938, "Ironweed" relates two nights in the life of Francis, his buddy Rudy and girlfriend Helen Archer. Haunted by ghosts of past acquaintances, Francis makes his way through the city of Albany, NY, burying the dead, collecting junk and trying to make peace with himself.

Kennedy paints a bitterly cold, dark, bleak picture of Albany in the late '30s. Yet somehow the people and places are alive and vibrant with color and character, from Francis's parents watching him from their graves to Helen.

"Helen has had a lifetime of sadnesses with her lovers. Her first true love kept her in his fierce embrace for years, but then he loosened that embrace and let her slide down and down until the hope within her died. Hopeless Helen, that's who she was when she met Francis. And as she stepped up to the microphone on the stage of The Gilded Cage, hearing the piano behind her, Helen was a living explosion of unbearable memory and indomitable joy."

Francis's nearly uncontrollable temper and love of the bottle almost get the best of him. But Kennedy creates a character in Francis that you can't help but root for. He's a violent man with a violent past, but also a deep devotion to those around him -- even the dead.

"He had a vision of Gerald swaddled in the silvery web of his grave, and then the vision faded like the stars and he could not even remember the color of the child's hair. he saw all the women who became three, and then their impossible coherence also faded and he saw only the glorious mouth of Katrina speaking words that wer little more than silent shapes; and he knew then that he was leaving behind more than a city and a lifetime of corpses. He was also leaving behind even his vivid memory of the scars on Helen's soul."

This book was on my list to read because of its award-winning status. I can't say I've liked every award-winning book on my list. But I really enjoyed Ironweed and highly recommend it.

For more -- and more articulate -- book reviews, head over to Kate's Web site.


Kate said...

More articulate? Ha. In fact, reading your review of this book made me feel like a forgetful dunce, because I read (and liked!) this book but can't remember it worth a damn. Helen? Hm, familiar. Yes, I remember the parents graves. But jeez, otherwise I'm a complete blank except for the drinking (his, not mine).

And apparently I read this before I started reviewing on the Web in 2005. I searched. That's why I started the site, partially: so no more of these good books slip through the sieve of my mind.

Pammeey said...

You inspired me to write about the books I read. I'm hopeful they'll stay in my brain because of it, too. I guess that's the downside of reading so much -- sometimes it's hard to remember details years later.