In honor of the Oscars last night, I thought I'd talk about an award-winning movie (New York and LA film critics) and book (Pulitzer Prize) combo I watched and listened to last month.
William Kennedy's Ironweed is a difficult book to write about because the power of this character study and examination of the destructiveness of alcohol, the harsh world of the homeless, and the inability to find self-forgiveness must be experienced to be appreciated.
The story takes place in just a week or so in 1938 Albany, when Francis Phelan returns to his hometown, twenty years after he abandoned his family. Although he was once a Major League ballplayer, by the time the Great Depression hit, Francis was already riding the rails, working just enough to buy his next bottle of hooch.
Kennedy's prose evokes a surreal atmosphere, mirrored by the fact that it's Halloween, and the streets are filled with ghouls. Are they children in costume or are they the ghosts of Francis's past? As the dead awaken, he's visited by both those he's failed to save and those whose lives he took, reminding him of the reasons he's been on the self-destructive path he opted to take.
Ironweed pulls us into Francis's life: the mission, the bars, the other deadbeats and bums, and finally the house he lived in with his wife and children. Despite his alcoholism and his destitution, he is no different from many us. He can help others more easily than he can help himself. He finds it hard to let himself fully love, lest he let someone down yet again. He exaggerates the significance of his faults and doesn't recognize his strengths. And he's haunted by his past.
Ironweed is about family, forgiveness, salvation, and the spark of hope that no matter how far we fall, no matter how hard life can be, there may still be someone who will care for and about us.
Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson were both nominated for Academy Awards for their work in the film version of Ironweed, which follows the novel fairly closely. The acting in the movie is fantastic, but the book is the better way to experience the story. Here's the official trailer:
Buy Ironweed at an Indie, Powell's, Book Depository, or a bookstore near you. These links lead to affiliate programs.
My review of the audio edition of this novel is available at AudioFile magazine.
Published by Penguin Books, 1983
Source: Audio: Review (see review policy)
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