Published in 1983, Ironweed belongs to William Kennedy's Albany Cycle, which also includes Legs (1975), Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), Quinn's Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992), and The Flaming Corsage (1996). In this series of novels, Kennedy creates a place that exerts tremendous power over the lives of its inhabitants. Like the characters of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, the denizens of Kennedy's Albany, New York, struggle not only against current adversity, but also against a palpable legacy of disappointment and guilt. Unable to avail himself of the salvation offered by the local mission, or even the solace of prayer, Ironweed's Francis Phelan mounts a lone challenge to the demons of his past.
Kennedy explores the nuances of guilt and responsibility through Francis's return to his hometown of Albany. Referring to a woman turned out of the shelter of the local mission for being drunk, Francis says, "Nobody's a bum all their life. She hada been somethin' once" (p. 31). Loss of identity is a central feature of the lives of Francis and his fellow bums. They make up a society of unrealized potential: Francis, a former baseball star; Helen, a former Vassar student and putative concert pianist; Oscar Reo, a former radio singer working as a singing bartender; and Pee Wee, a former barber who carries a comb and scissors to prove his talent. Kennedy invites us to join these characters in speculating about how they ended up as they did; their tragedies are rooted in a mix of personal flaws and social forces that are not easily untangled.
Francis's big-league baseball career is both a confirmation of his talent and a pinnacle from which he has fallen. As a young man, he became "the principal hero" (p. 206) of a trolley strike by hitting a scab in the head with a rock and killing him. Francis is celebrated for this act as a champion of working mena David skillfully striking down the enemyin a play written by a local author about the strike. But several others die in the rioting that day. Believing himself entirely responsible for those deaths, Francis "[flees] into heroism" and feels "the hero's most splendid guilt" (p. 207), leaving Albany to evade the legal consequences of his heroics. A few years later, after the accidental death of his infant son, Gerald, Francis again flees Albany and sinks into a life of drinking and drifting, killing a few more men along the way. Francis lives burdened by guilt but determined to go on.
The novel opens on Allhallows Eve in 1938, an appropriate day for Francis to find himself haunted by the men he killed and the family he abandoned. His visit to Gerald's grave, to which he is drawn while working as a day laborer in the cemetery, leaves him with "the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation for abandoning the family" (p. 19). So begins his reconciliation with those he has wronged or killed. Francis meets the men he killed intentionallydefending himself on the street or trying to save union jobs during the trolley strikeand those killed unintentionally in his attack on the scab during the strike. Although the guilt he carries for all of these deaths periodically overwhelms him, Francis grows increasingly uncertain about how much responsibility he bears for them.
In flashbacks, Kennedy uses Francis's relationships with women as another way to chart the decline of his powers and to examine the extent of his responsibility for others' lives. As a teenager, Francis protected Katrina Daugherty, the married woman next door, from scandal by remaining silent after she wandered outside wearing only a hat and, later, seduced him. As he grows older, Francis's resolve in situations in which he could be a positive influence on the lives of women diminishes. When Gerald dies, he abandons his wife, Annie, to raise their two other children on her own. He tries to protect Helen, his itinerant companion after Annie, from her self-destructive tendencies, but he ultimately abandons her, leaving her to trade sex for shelter on a cold night. Once Katrina's lover, Francis is reduced to impotence with Helen; yet, it is important to note that all three women choose him, and Annie and Helen remain loyal despite his dereliction. As with the men whose lives have intersected his own, Francis cannot easily assign responsibility for the fates of these women.
By the end of the novel, Francis has come to understand his past differently; he sees that some of the blood he shed was in defense of himself and others, and that not all the deaths for which he felt responsible were entirely his fault. He recognizes his limitations and the fact that he is not the larger-than-life hero he thought. Armed with a new sense of self, Francis is able to fight one last battle on behalf of the downtrodden, face his family, and resist the urge to flee once more.
William Kennedy was born into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Albany, New York, in 1928. After college, he embarked on a career as a journalist, first as a sports reporter for the Post-Star in Glens Falls, New York, then as a writer for an army newspaper in Europe after being drafted in 1950. He joined the Albany Times Union before taking a newspaper job in Puerto Rico in 1956. There he met his wife, Dana, and became managing editor of the San Juan Star in 1959. He quit to write fiction full-time two years later, and, uninspired by Puerto Rico, he returned to Albany in 1963.
Kennedy published his first novel, The Ink Truck, in 1969, followed by the first two installments of the Albany Cycle, Legs (1975), a fictional account of legendary gangster Legs Diamond, and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (1978), which introduced the Phelan family. However, it was Ironweed (1983), the third novel in the Albany Cycle and winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle award, that established Kennedy's reputation. The Albany Cycle of novels continued with Quinn's Book (1988), Very Old Bones (1992), and The Flaming Corsage (1996). Roscoe, the most recent installment, appeared in January 2002. Kennedy wrote the screenplay for the film version of Ironweed (1987), and cowrote the script for The Cotton Club (1986) with Francis Ford Coppola. He also has published two nonfiction books: O Albany! (1983), a history of the city, and Riding the Yellow Trolley Car (1993), a collection of essays, journalism, memoirs, and reviews.