The travel site Lonely Planet begins its profile of the New York state capital with the following verdict: “Synonymous with legislative dysfunction as much as legislative power, Albany (or ‘Smallbany’ to jaded locals) remains a tourism backwater.” While a fitting opening for the titleholder of “the most average city in America,” the full profile nevertheless neglects to mention some of Albany’s several claims to fame. Albany was first established by Dutch colonialists in the early 1600s, and the modest city boasts the oldest Christian congregation in Upstate New York. It also provides the backdrop to the 1983 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, in addition to eight further novels by author William Kennedy, all pieces of the Albany cycle.

The reputation of Albany as “average,” together with Ironweeds altogether unglamorous protagonist—a homeless man—proved a barrier to its publication. The manuscript was rejected thirteen times because, as Kennedy explained to the Guardian, “Who cares about bums? And especially bums in Albany.”[1]

 

It is precisely this disinterest in the drab—in very poor people, and in Albany—that Kennedy seeks to overturn in his novel.

 

It is precisely this disinterest in the drab— in very poor people, and in Albany—that Kennedy seeks to overturn in his novel. “Bums” like his protagonist Francis Phelan may smell, but they are also complex individuals with thoughts worthy of being heard. The high-minded publishing houses Kennedy approached found this to be a radical notion; one editor told Kennedy that “it was not credible to… put those kinds of thoughts into Francis Phelan’s mind, because no bum thinks that way.” [2]

Albany, like its homeless, inspires Kennedy because of the rich expanse of life within its dreariness. “Not every town has a skid row and a mission, or trolley strikes with the heavy violence that made Francis Phelan what he was. Even being Irish Catholic—it’s not the same even in Ireland as it is in Albany.”[3] This grounding in the distinctive daily reality of Albany enables universal truth to emerge. More specifically, the particularity of Albany grounds Kennedy, in his own words, “in telling a story about what it means to be alive.”[4]

The irresoluteness of life and death, along with their wonder and brutality, is presented in the details of Albany, as portrayed in Ironweed’s tale of Francis—a homeless, guilt-ridden alcoholic who roams the city, taking each day as it comes. In fact, for Francis, life and death are at once indistinguishable and oppositional.

Ironweed opens in a graveyard, where Francis works for the day in order to earn enough money for a drink or a room (though he’d rather the former than the latter). He ponders his own death, his future burial, and expresses an anxiety about dying in solitude: “It’s okay with me if I don’t have no headstone… just so’s I don’t die alone.”[5] This apparent separation of life and death is otherwise fluid; he contemplates the end of his life while surrounded by the dead who, here in Albany, appear to be living. Francis’ deceased parents watch him from beneath the ground. His mother gnaws at dandelions while his father puffs on dried out grass roots, their appetite for life undiminished in the grave.[6] When his fellow bum Rudy says, “I ain’t dead”, Francis responds with “That’s what you think.”[7] In Ironweed there’s no telling between a corpse and a man.

The open-ended nature of life and death in Ironweed is at times expressed with religious language or connotations, particularly by reference to a brand of popular Catholicism that permeates the novel. Francis’ baby son Gerald, who Francis killed by accident shortly after his birth, would not be out of place in a Raphael painting. He is a cherubic figure, not subject to decay; rather, Gerald has “grown to a completeness… both natural and miraculous”, with a full head of hair and white-gold skin.[8] From his little coffin, Gerald is described as witnessing the “advent” of his father, after which he obliges Francis to perform “expiation” for the sin of abandoning his family.[9]

From the outset, a bildungsroman framework appears to be in place, within which Francis embarks on a quest to atone for his sins and return to his family. This quest for expiation also posits Francis as not unlike Christ, who had made a parallel journey to redress the sins of humanity and so reunite with his Father in heaven. The allusions to Francis as a Christ figure linger throughout the novel. Francis’ displacement, for instance, is not unlike that of Jesus, who himself is described as without a home in the Gospels. His mother even fulfills the role of the Virgin Mary who, being assumed into heaven, never died. Like Mary, Mrs. Phelan is a “virginal mother…[who] has been dead all her life… the iron maiden of induced chastity.”[10] This paradoxical state of living death is shared by Francis, who knows that “through all the endless years of his death […] he would be this decayed self.”[11]

Francis’ search for expiation ends at Thanksgiving dinner with his family, who he’d deserted after killing baby Gerald. He is welcomed and forgiven by them. He is invited to wash himself in the Phelan house, in a bathroom that he calls “sacred” and “holy.”[12] The water rinses both his literal grime and the filth of his sins away.

Although the reunion dinner signals that the bildungsroman has run its course—Francis’ quest as dictated by Gerald is over, and he has made peace with his past—the novel continues. Newly clean, Francis leaves his wife’s house and joins his second family, on the streets. There, at his most Christ-like, Francis enacts a last supper. They shared “the wine among them”, and he distributes turkey sandwiches to his fellow bums and a nearby homeless family. Lost in thought, Francis struggles to figure out his new place in the world, having finally returned to his family. Here, he departs from his Jesus role and decides the following: “My guilt is all that I have left. If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing, been nothing.” [13] When, in the next moment he and his group are ambushed by marauding American Legionnaires determined to clean up Albany’s streets, Francis acts in pursuit of guilt; the earlier completion of his quest is made redundant. Kennedy reminds the reader that the messiness of life cannot be captured in bildungsroman format.

 

The impossibility of prayer speaks to the inadequacy of religion, exposed so abruptly amidst these tragedies.

 

Francis breaks one man’s back with a baseball bat while fleeing the scene, watching “with all but orgasmic pleasure as the breathless man twisted grotesquely and fell without a sound.”[14] Although murder was unnecessary for achieving their escape, Francis does successfully save the family he’d fed earlier that night, and carries a wounded friend, Rudy, to safety. Not long after, however, Francis’ friend Rudy dies, and he finds his girlfriend dead. At this point he decides that “finally there was no way for him to pray.”[15] The impossibility of prayer speaks to the inadequacy of religion, exposed so abruptly amidst these tragedies. Life is brimming with death and vice versa, and the end of one quest is never certain. It may only mark the beginning of another.

Ironweed comes to a close in the Phelan house, where he has been offered a room to stay. The reader is returned to the scene of Francis’ redemption, where he sits at the kitchen table, dirty once again. This—Kennedy seems to say—is what it means to be alive.


Eloise Blondiau currently studies Religion, Literature and Culture at Harvard Divinity School. Her wide-ranging interests include social justice, contemporary literature, and madness.

 

[1] William Kennedy, interview by Emma Brockes, The Guardian, 24 February 2012 <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/24/william-kennedy-life-writing-interview>.

[2] William Kennedy, interview by Douglas R. Allen, Mona Simpson, The Paris Review: Art of Fiction No. 111, July 1984 <http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2391/the-art-of-fiction-no-111-william-kennedy>.

[3] Allen and Simpson.

[4] Ibid.

[5] William Kennedy, Ironweed (New York: Penguin Books, 1984), 16.

[6] Ibid., 2.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Ibid., 17.

[9] Ibid., 19.

[10] Ibid., 99.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 172.

[13] Ibid., 216.

[14] Ibid., 218.

[15] Ibid., 223.

Image from Flickr via Sébastien Barré.

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