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The novel takes place in Albany during the Great Depression during a forty-eight hour period. Francis Phelan, father of Billy , has returned to Albany in He had left twice before.

The first time was in when, during a strike, he had thrown a rock that had killed a strikebreaker. He had returned to become a top baseball player but, in , when drunk, he dropped and killed his thirteen-day old son, Gerald, and left thinking his wife, Annie, would not forgive him.

This time he has come back to earn some money, having lived life as a bum. His source of income is the McCalls, for whom he is going to stuff ballots.

However he is arrested before he gets the money and has to work as a grave digger to earn some money, working in the cemetery where Gerald is buried.

When he finally goes back to his house, to his surprise, Annie has forgiven him and welcomes him back. Annie and his children ask him to stay but he goes off to a hobo camp. When it is raided by legionnaires, he kills one of the legionnaires, defending his friend. He later finds that his fellow hobo, Helen, has died. In the end he does go home but stays in the attic, though Kennedy does give us a somewhat ambiguous ending.

What Kennedy does in this book is to show us a man who is a down-and-out, a bum, but, who nevertheless, has his own character, his own resilience and his own history. He is not, in short, just any bum but an ironweed, one who survives, no matter what.

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From a fortune cookie to a Pulitzer: the story behind William Kennedy's Ironweed

Ironweed is a novel by William Kennedy. It is included in the Western Canon of the critic Harold Bloom. Ironweed is set during the Great Depression and tells the story of Francis Phelan , an alcoholic vagrant originally from Albany, New York , who left his family after accidentally killing his infant son while he may have been drunk. The novel focuses on Francis's return to Albany, and the narrative is complicated by Phelan's hallucinations of the three people, other than his son, whom he killed in the past.

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The Modern Novel

He seemed now to have always been the family killer; for no one else he knew of in the family had ever lived as violently as he. And yet he had never sought that kind of life. Francis Phelan is a man who believes his own hands have betrayed and destroyed him. His entire body, though rundown from decades of sleeping in the weeds and on the streets, retains the devastating grace which brought him the accolades of sportswriters and fans as a ballplayer alongside the likes of Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. Phelan is a thinker and a dreamer, and this is part of his allure; the Ptolomaic aside which concludes the book is the final instance of a life of deep and endearing reflection, a state of consciousness in which the dead live, board buses and trains, erect bleachers on the lawn to stare on Phelan and debate with him his acts against them. Francis was now certain only that he could never arrive at any conclusions about himself that had their origin in reason. But neither did he believe himself incapable of thought.


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At age fifty-eight Francis Phelan is an alcoholic vagrant, the murderer of three men with a share of responsibility in several other deaths, and a twenty-year deserter of his wife and children. And yet Kennedy creates him as a plausibly heroic figure holding to an austere set of values … through the course of … forty-eight hours, Francis meets and converses with all of the important ghosts of his past—from his parents, to companions of his youth, to those in whose violent deaths he has been implicated. The quality of the writing makes the question irrelevant. There is eloquence in Ironweed , and it blesses characters, situations, events from which it is much harder to extract human dignity and elicit compassion … that is, the lives and deaths of people on the teetering edge of humanity … Kennedy manages to bless these unpromising materials by authorial intrusion, and his methods are lyricism and metaphor … Along with considerable talent, such bold intrusion reveals a high level of confidence about the medium of fiction. And so we have the Albany novels, which mix hard, gritty realism with a surreal lyricism of great beauty in the depiction of, among other things, an Irish-American underclass of ruthless criminals, gamblers, and homeless bums, the lowest of the low.

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