[Ironweed is a stunning work of art.  Concise and masterfully written.  Kennedy successfully describes what would seem to be the indescribable:  the ruminations, feelings, regrets, and dreams, of both the living and the dead.  It’s an incredibly sad book but also somehow hopeful.  

Takeaways:  1. Humans persevere despite life’s many obstacles – internal and external (or they don’t and succumb)  2. Yes, even “bums” have thoughts, feelings, and dreams!  3. That the dead are very much present in our lives;  they continue to live in our memories of course, but more than that, they accompany us the rest of our days in some fashion.  

The book is a towering tribute to the disenfranchised, marginalized, lost and/or forgotten (an equal to The Grapes of Wrath in my opinion).   jbm 7/1/2017]

“From the heat of the sun Francis felt a flow of juices in his body, which he interpreted as a gift of strength from the sky.”

“When the truck was fully loaded Francis and Rudy climbed atop the dirt and the driver rode them to a slope where a score of graves of the freshly dead sent up the smell of sweet putrescence, the incense of unearned mortality and interrupted dreams.”

“Now he wasn’t drinking.  He hadn’t had a drink for two days and he felt a little bit of all right.  Strong, even.  He’d stopped drinking because he’d run out of money, and that coincided with Helen not feeling all that terrific and Francis wanting to take care of her.”

“Francis had coffee and bread with the bums who’d dried out, and other bums passin’ through, and the preacher there watchin’ everybody and playin’ grabass with their souls. Never mind my soul, was Francis’s line.  Just pass the coffee.  Then he stood out front killin’ time and pickin’ his teeth with a matchbook cover.  And here came Rudy.”

“Jeez it’s tough when you need that drink and your throat’s like an open sore and it’s four in the morning and the wine’s gone and no place open and you got no money or nobody to bum from, even if there was a place open.  That’s tough, pal.  Tough.”

“Being dead here would situate a man in place and time.  It would give a man neighbors, even some of them really old folks, like those antique dead ones at the foot of the lawn…all crumbling under their limestone headstones from which the snows, sand, and acids of reduction were slowly removing their names.  But what did the perpetuation of names matter?”

“You keep askin’ questions about me, I’m gonna give you a handful of answers.”

“You suppose now that I can remember this stuff out in the open, I can finally start to forget it?”

[Rudy]…a friend of about two weeks, now seemed to Francis a fellow traveler on a journey to a nameless destination in another country.  He was simple, hopeless and lost, as lost as Francis himself, though somewhat younger, dying of cancer, afloat in ignorance, weighed with stupidity, inane, sheeplike, and given to fits of weeping over his lostness; and yet there was something in him that buoyed Francis’s spirit…They both knew intimately the etiquette, the taboos, the protocol of bums…They feared drys, cops, jailers, bosses, moralists, crazies, truth-tellers, and one another.  They loved storytellers, liars, whores, fighters, singers, collie dogs that wagged their tails, and generous bandits. Rudy, thought Francis: he’s just a bum, but who ain’t?”

“If it draws blood or breaks heads,” said Francis, “I know how it tastes.”

“His lesson to Francis was this:  that life is full of caprice and missed connections, that thievery is wrong, especially if you get caught, that even Italians cannot outrun bullets, that a proffered hand in a moment of need is a beautiful thing.”

“The night sky was black as a bat and the wind was bringing ice to the world.”

“Well not me, Frances said to his unavailed-for self, and he smelled his own uncanceled stink again, aware that it had intensified since morning.  The sweat of a workday, the sourness of dried earth on his hands and clothes, the putrid perfume of the cemetery air with its pretension to windblown purity, all this lay in foul incrustation atop the private pestilence of his being.  When he threw himself onto Gerald’s grave, the uprush of a polluted life all but asphyxiated him.”

“And yet, and yet…here he was, disguised behind a mustache, another cripple, his ancient weary eyes revealing to Francis the scars of a blood brother, a man for whom life had been a promise unkept in spite of great success, a promise now and forever unkeepable. The man was singing a song that had grown old not from time but from wear.  The song is frayed.  The song is worn out.”

“Helen, with the image of inexpungeable sorrow in her cortex, with a lifelong devotion to forlorn love, was sweeping richly for all the pearls lost since love’s old sweet song first was sung.”

“The new-mown hay, the silvery moon, the home fires burning, these were sanctuaries of Helen’s spirit, songs whose like she had sung from her earliest days, songs that endured for her as long as the classics she had committed to memory so indelible in her youth, for they spoke to her, not abstractly of the aesthetic peaks of the art she had once hoped to master, but directly, simply, about the everyday currency of the heart and soul.”

“The city had grown quiet at midnight and the moon was as white as early snow.”

“The cold had numbed Francis’s fingertips, frost was blooming on the roofs of parked cars, and the night-walkers exhaled dancing plumes of vapor.”

“I believe we die when we can’t stand it anymore.  I believe we stand as much as we can and then we die when we can, and Sandra decided she could die.”
“I don’t fight that.  Die when you can.  That’s as good a sayin’ as there is.”

“Jack opened the door and looked out with the expression of an ominous crustacean.”

“And Red Cooley, the shortstop who was the pepper of Francis’s ancient imagination, and who never stopped the chatter, who leaped at every ground ball as if it were the brass ring to heaven, and who, with his short-fingered glove, wanted for nothing to be judged the world’s greatest living ball player, if only it hadn’t been for the homegrown deference that kept him a prisoner of Arbor Hill for the rest of his limited life.”

“Why were there no words that would unlock what lay festering in the heart of Rowdy Dick Doolan, who needed so desperately to express what he could never even know needed expression?”

“Francis began to run, and in so doing, reconstituted a condition that was as pleasurable to his being as it was natural:  the running of bases after the crack of the bat, the running from accusation, the running from the calumny of men and women, the running from family, from bondage, from destitution of spirit through ritualistic straightenings, the running, finally, in a quest for pure flight as a fulfilling mannerism of the spirit.”

“He walked with an empty soul toward the north star, magnetized by an impulse to redirect his destiny.”

“Gray clouds that looked like two flying piles of dirty socks blew swiftly past the early-morning sun, the world shimmered in a sudden blast of incandescence, and Francis blinked.”

“She has been dead all her life, Francis thought, and for the first time in years he felt pity for this woman, who had been spayed by self-neutered nuns and self-gelded priests.”

“Sensitive bum.  I got a sensitive bum working for me.”

“Smoke, not fire, killed her, just as the ashes and not the flames of her sensuality had finally smothered her desire; so Francis believed.”

“…and she awakened in him the urge for a love of his own, a love that belonged to no other man, a love he would never have to share with any man, or boy, like himself.”

“The woman smiled at Helen through her pince-nez and Helen returned the smile.  There are nice people in the world and sometimes you meet them.  Sometimes.”

“He loved and half-loved lots of things about Albany.
But then one day it’s February again,
And it won’t be long now till the snow gets gone again,
And the grass comes green again,
And then the dance music rises in Francis’s brain,
And he longs to flee again,
And he flees.”

“…he perceived that a kiss is as expressive of a way of life as is a smile, or a scarred hand.”

“…he and she would both know that there was something in each of them that had to stop being one and become two…that there was something between them that had to stop being two and become one.  Such was the significance of that kiss.”

“Everything was easier than coming home, even reducing yourself to the level of social maggot, streetside slug.”

“…I don’t want nothin’ but the look of everybody.  Just the look’ll do me.  Just the way things look out in that yard.  It’s a nice yard.  It’s a nice doggie.  Damn, it’s nice…and there ain’t nothin’ in the world like your elbows sittin’ there on the table across from me, and that apron all full of stains.”

“…Francis remembered Emmett Daugherty’s face…an Irishman who never drank more than enough, a serious and witty man of control and high purpose, and with an unkillable faith in God and the laboring man.”

[the jungle] “Cripples lived here, and natives of this town who had lost their homes, and people who had come here at journey’s end to accept whatever disaster was going to happen next.”

“The man accepted the gifts with an upturned face that revealed the incredulity of a man struck by lightening in the rainless desert…”

“Francis concluded he had made yet another wrong decision, another in a long line.  He concluded that he was not capable of making a right decision, that he was as wrongheaded a man as ever lived.  He felt certain now that he would never attain the balance that allowed so many other men to live peaceful, nonviolent, nonfugitive lives, lives that spawned at least a modicum of happiness in old age.”

“In the deepest part of himself that could draw an unutterable conclusion, he told himself:  My guilt is all that I have left.  If I lose it, I have stood for nothing, done nothing, been nothing.”

“Name was Rudy.”
“Rudy what?”
“Rudy Newton,” Francis said.  “He knew where the Milky Way was.”

“By now he was sure only that he lived in a world where events decided themselves, and that all a man could do was to stay one jump into their mystery.”

“The bottle and the moon made music like a soulful banjo when they moved through the heavens, divine harmonies that impelled Francis to leap off the train and seek sanctuary under the holy Phelan eaves.”


Copyright:  William Kennedy, 1979, 1981, 1983

author biography:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Kennedy

The Guardian article:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/24/william-kennedy-life-writing-interview

Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks/Polaris






author bio:  https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-Kennedy

the guardian article:  https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/24/william-kennedy-life-writing-interview

photo: Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images