Ironweed

1st Edition of Ironweed (1983)

  • Author:  William Kennedy  (b. 1928)
  • Rank:  #100
  • Published:  1983
  • Publisher:  Viking Press
  • Pages:  227  (Penguin Paperback)
  • First Line:  “Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.”
  • Last Lines:  “That room of Danny’s had some space to it.  And it got the morning light too.  It was a mighty nice little room.”
  • ML Edition:  none
  • Series:  Albany Cycle
  • Film:  1987 – ***.5 (dir. Hector Babenco)
  • Acclaim:  Pulitzer Prize  (1984),  National Book Critics Circle (1983),  Modern Library Top 100 20th Century Novels  (#92), Western Canon  (Harold Bloom)
  • Read:  Fall, 1996

The Novel: I am drawn to tales of Albany as a place of myth and history.  I was born there and raised, until I was six, right in the heart of the city, but then moved away with only a few short visits to mark the last 30 years.  I still have vivid memories, memories which are all the more surprising in that reality has actually capitulated to my memories, confirming them in all their mythic glory.  So, in the mid 90’s, back in the longest stretch between visits to the East Coast (the 10 years between leaving Brandeis and returning on my honeymoon), it was only natural for to me fall under the spell of William Kennedy, who not only had lived his whole life in my hometown, a great deal of that time spent writing about it, but even taught at the same school where my father had worked when I was born.  Of course, Kennedy’s Albany is not quite my Albany.  My Albany is playing at Washington Park, sledding on the hill at the high school, swimming in the pool at SUNY, watching my brothers play baseball at Westland Hills.  His Albany is the time of gangsters and depression, strikes and bums, the dark time of the thirties that Kennedy grew up in.  It is this era that is the setting for what was initially referred to as The Albany Trilogy, but later was expanded as The Albany Cycle (for a time, there was a Penguin version of the first three novels: Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game and Ironweed as The Albany Trilogy in one book).  By the time I read the novel, I had long before seen the film.  It wasn’t too much of a problem as it had been several years since I had seen the film and because the film actually enhances the novel, partially because Kennedy himself wrote the script, and partially because of the performances.  It allowed to visualize the characters, to enter the novel with some measure of sympathy for two characters who have fallen to the far end of the scale.

Kennedy had already introduced the Phelan family in Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game with hints about Francis, the father who had left town after the baby, Gerald, died.  Here we get the story, gaining access to Francis’s thoughts, learning the exact details of how he dropped the baby and fled town:  “Tears oozed from Francis’s eyes, and when one of them fell onto his shoetop, he pitched forward onto the grave, clutching the grass, remembering the diaper in his grip.”  But tragedy and humor are quickly intermixed in the novel; Francis, walking away from the grave is asked about it by a fellow day-laborer, Rudy, and when Francis explains that it was a child who died from falling on the floor, Rudy replies ” ‘Hell, I fall on the floor about twice a day and I ain’t dead.’  ‘That’s what you think,’ Francis said.”  Francis has come back to Albany, where he had fled, and we think at first it is because of the accident which killed his son. But soon we begin to learn more, how Francis fled town before when he killed a scab during a trolley-strike.  These two are Francis’s ghosts, who come to haunt him through the novel (only appropriately, for not only has he caused their deaths, but we find out later that the first day of the novel is set on Halloween).  It is a stark reminder that we haven’t all killed, we all have ghosts and so many of them are found where we come from (my old roommate has remarked more than once how Janis Joplin died soon after going home, that she couldn’t bear the ghosts her hometown held).

Francis is not alone.  Before he deals with his family, we first meet Helen, a poor woman who has been beaten down by her alcoholism: “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.”  As Helen takes the stage and sings for her supper and rises to the applause, even as she keeps her coat on to hide the pitiful state of her clothes, we see the tragedy that has enfolded her life: “At some point it all came together and didn’t make much difference anyway, for sad or happy, happy or sad, life didn’t change for Helen.”

Of course, all of this works towards his return to his house.  He arrives with a turkey and at first his wife, 22 years past, doesn’t recognize him.  But before long he is inside and they are talking and the kind of things that only people who have lived through this pass: ” ‘Talked to Gerald.  Told him how it was.  Told him a bunch of stuff.’  ‘I’ll bet he was glad to hear from you.’ ”  For the next 27 pages, as Francis deals with his family, not only his wife, but his two surviving children, now grown, and a grandson he didn’t even know existed, we have beautiful prose and haunting dialogue, the kind of things that can only be said by those who live through such times as the Great Depression and the pain it can bring.  But then Francis leaves, goes back to his fellow homeless on the streets, only to find themselves forced out of the city by raiders, determined to drive all the bums away.  Attacked with ferocity, Francis tears a bat from one of the raiders and determines to defend himself and his friends: “Francis connected with a stroke that would have sent any pitch over any center-field fence in any ball park anywhere, and he clearly heard and truly felt bones crack in the man’s back.  He watched with all but orgasmic pleasure as the breathless man twisted grotesquely and fell without a sound.”  From there, he travels through his ghosts, the only thing left him now, to a haunting conclusion, alone in his past and future all at once, at ease with his pain and his ghosts.

The Film:

A simple classic image for the film poster of Ironweed (1987): no faces, no scenes, just the image and the names: Nicholson, Streep

When they starred together in Ironweed, Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep had already made one film together, Heartburn, a silly comedy made the year before.  While Streep is likely headed for yet another Oscar nomination this year, I wonder if people today realize how great a film actor Jack Nicholson is, possibly the finest ever.  When they were making this film, they were just a year removed from Oscar nominations, an eighth for Nicholson, a sixth for Streep and even a first for director Hector Babenco.  Steep had quickly made a name for herself as those nominations were all in less than a decade, but by this point Nicholson had not only won two Oscars (so had Streep), but had re-defined acting, ushering in the era of the great actors in the seventies with his performances in Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces and Chinatown.

The film itself was a tremendous flop.  It earned only $7 million against its cost of $27 million as a prestige Oscar Christmas release but did manage to earn Best Actor and Best Actress nominations for its two leads (one of those odd Oscar things as Streep clearly has a supporting role and considerably less screen time).  Both nominations were well deserved.  Both of them slide so easily into these roles, playing characters so opposite of who they are; beaten up by life, failing apart in their alcoholism, looking much older than their actual ages (Nicholson was 50, Streep was 38), they both showed why they are the two leading Oscar nominees in history.

As a film, it’s hard to watch.  There’s no problem of quality; its very well-made, well shot, with great scenery and costumes that absolutely evoke the era.  And not only are Nicholson and Streep so perfect in their roles, but the supporting performances, from the surprisingly excellent Tom Waits, to a then unknown Nathan Lane, are all pretty spot on.  The direction is a bit slow and its surprising that a novel of just over 200 pages could make a film that’s well over 2 hours in length.  But William Kennedy himself wrote the script and there is no question that it’s one of the truest films to any novel that will appear on this list.  Kennedy made sure that the film included all of what he had included in the novel.  While no film can quite adequately translate the poetry of third person narrative to the screen, there is no question that the look, the feel, the aura of the film all perfectly match the book.  It comes back to being hard to watch.  It’s one thing to read about such characters, about the violence in their lives, the violence they bring to their own world, watching them slowly crawl into their own graves; it’s quite another to actually watch such a thing on-screen and there’s no question that it was never going to earn its money back.  Such films are made because they are art, not because they are entertainment.

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