Ironweed – William Kennedy


This book deals with the life of Francis “Frank” Phelan, homeless guy in 1930’s Albany, New York. It gives a couple of days in his life, along with various flashbacks to enable us to see how he got to be the way he is. It is the third in the author’s “Albany” cycle of books, but can be read as a stand-alone.

Main Characters:

Francis Phelan: Once a hugely-promising baseball player, and still a physically strong man despite approaching his 60’s and leading the life he does, he is the central character. He ran away from his home as he believed he had killed his infant son, and this drove him to become an alcoholic. He has been on the road over 20 years, and has now made his way back to his home town.

Anne Phelan: The stoic wife, who raised her family alone when her feckless husband left her. Strong, loyal, and more resilient than most of the characters in this book. It seems she is still in love with Francis. She is very forgiving, and “a real good woman”.

Helen Archer: Francis’ street wife, who lost everything when her rich father died, and relies now on casual prostitution just to be able to sleep in a rusted out car.

Minor Characters:

Rudy: Francis’ travelling companion, dying of cancer. The relationship is somewhat superficial on some levels.


Francis is back in town, ostensibly to reconcile with his family. He left them over 2o years previously, after he dropped and killed his infant son. We find all this out over the first few chapters, as the author introduces us to the world of 1930’s homeless.

We meet his friends (Rudy) and lovers (Helen), and see what they have to do to get a bite to eat, and what passes for a roof over their head. Favours are called in, and they throw themselves on the mercies of (former) friends. It is a grim, brutal, unsentimental and unforgiving world.

Francis is tormented by guilt, and sees the ghosts of people he has met throughout his life. We come to see that he has a violent temper, makes bad choices, and has even killed (more than just his son).

As the novel progresses, Francis recounts his life through a series of flashbacks, even imagining what it was like for his virgin mother on her marriage night. We get greater insight into his character, and see he is somewhat of a coward, not facing up to his responsibilities.

The story winds to its end, and the reader is left wondering of what was the final outcome, as Francis still has choices left open to him.

What I Liked:

Well written, with a great eye for an evocative turn of phrase.

There is the possibility of hope, throughout the book.

What I Didn’t like:

The story just didn’t move. The narrative bounced around, and just took too long to get into.

The plot just didn’t interest me.


I found this really really hard to finish. There are some great passages in it, but overall it did not either entertain or inform me. Winning Pulitzer or other prizes is great, but I struggle to see how this did. I would not recommend.

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