IRONWEED by William Kennedy
Kirkus Star


A Novel
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In this third novel in Kennedy's Depression-Albany series, the focus is on aging, bumming Francis Phelan, sire of small-town gambler Billy (Billy Phelan's Greatest Came, 1978); and again the grand-talking prose curlicues in extravagant declamations, levitates into hellfire profanations, and celebrates the bonding of an underculture's fine, boozy chivalry--like those pre-stupor moments in a Saturday-night bar when the consciousness peers into poetry and the cosmos. Francis, a former baseball big-leaguer, is now given to "alcoholic desolation," taking on a few bucks by digging graves. And, in the cemetery, he communes with the family and neighborhood dead--especially those whose demises were linked to Francis, the "family killer": for the first time he spends a moment at the grave of his infant son Gerald, killed when Francis dropped him by accident; there's Rowdy Dick, smashed against a wall when he tried to cut off Francis' feet; and, of course, doomed motorman Harold Allen, whom Francis killed in a long-ago strike with a stone aimed sure and true. (It was then that "the compulsion to flight first hit . . . and it was as pleasurable to his being as it was natural: the running of bases after the crack of a bat, the running from accusation . . . the calumny of men and women . . . from family, from bondage, from destitution of spirit . . . in a quest for pure flight as a fulfilling mannerism of the spirit.") Still the warrior among a drift of bums, then, Francis also cronys with pal Rudy--with Helen, the wilted blossom, who's proud she chose (wasn't pushed into) a middle-age of bumming. He sets what teeth he has left and asks the bum-brotherhood's enduring question: "How do I get through the next twenty minutes?" There's a bar night with ex-singing star Oscar ("What was it that went bust for us, Oscar, how come nobody found out how to fix it for us?"); there are memories of first sex and the Big League, the winter cold, and ghosts. After all, "everything was easier than going home." But eventually Francis does--to wife Annie, still-loving Billy, daughter Peg: there's even a family dinner, in 1916 dude clothes, as Francis' ghosts build bleachers in the Phelan's back yard to watch. And finally, after one more binge and another killing in shanty-town, Francis, to the tune of the moon and an empty whiskey bottle, goes to the "holy Phelan caves." In sure: the best of Kennedy's Albany books--slender of plot machinations, rich in folk-song simplicity . . . like a "Big Rock Candy Mountain" in weepy, bone-shivering Irish brass.
Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 1982
ISBN: 0140070206
Page count: 248pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1st, 1982


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