27 February 2012

Review: Ironweed by William Kennedy

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
ISBN-13: 9780140070200
Source: Audio: Review (see review policy)
Rating: B+
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy)


Serena 2/27/12, 8:20 AM  

Ah movies with Jack Nicholson floor me. Thanks for the review of this. I had no idea that this was a book first.

dog eared copy 2/27/12, 9:11 AM  

Hmm, I got a copy of this a couple of years ago and then let it sit neglected in one of my TBR stacks. I t sounds like I should dig it up and move it to the fore, though I might wait until sunnier, happier weather to read it. Given the winter blasts that are sweeping here now and the attendant mid-winter blues, this might be a little intense, no?

Word Lily 2/27/12, 10:03 AM  

I read the book a few years ago (excellent, if not the happiest), but I've not seen the film.

Daryl 2/27/12, 10:54 AM  

a very depressing movie .. I think I will pass on this book ..

Unknown 2/27/12, 10:58 AM  

I am not familiar with the book or movie, so it's something I'll be adding to my lists. Seems very intense, yet worthwhile. Thank you for this review. I love when I'm lead to older books/movies I missed.

bermudaonion 2/27/12, 11:34 AM  

Somehow I missed that when it came out. Sounds like a very powerful book and movie.

Zibilee 2/27/12, 11:52 AM  

This does sound intense, and like nothing that I have ever read or watched before. I imagine that I would probably get a lot out of this book, and will be looking for it. Great review today on these two!

Beth Hoffman 2/27/12, 12:17 PM  

I loved the film but never read the book, and I think it's probably time that I do!

Julie P. 2/27/12, 3:53 PM  

I think I should explore both!

Robin M 2/27/12, 5:50 PM  

Sounds intriguing. Heavy duty yet intriguing. Will have to check out both the book and the movie. Anything with Jack Nicholson is worth watching. :)

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