Ironweed is the best-known of William Kennedy's three Albany-based novels. Francis Phelan, ex-ballplayer, part-time gravedigger, full-time drunk, has hit bottom. Years ago he left Albany in a hurry after killing a scab during a trolley workers' strike; he ran away again after accidentally – and fatally – dropping his infant son. Now, in 1938, Francis is back in town, roaming the old familiar streets with his hobo pal, Helen, trying to make peace with the ghosts of the past and the present.
As an added bonus, when you purchase our Audible Modern Vanguard production of William Kennedy's book, you'll also receive an exclusive Jim Atlas interview. This interview – where James Atlas interviews Russell Banks about the life and work of William Kennedy – begins as soon as the audiobook ends.
The living and the dead, the past and the present linger together in William Kennedy's haunting, lyrical masterpiece, Ironweed. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1984 and one of the best books in Kennedy's deservedly-praised "Albany cycle", Ironweed reads like a classic novel James Joyce would have written if he had grown up in upstate New York in the late 19th century. One sentence flows seamlessly into the next, the words lingering in your mind like the lyrics of a melancholy ballad sung by an Irish tenor who's lived a hard, heart-breaking life.
Set on Halloween and the day after in 1938, in the midst of the Great Depression, Ironweed tells the story of Francis Phelan, a middle-aged, self-described "bum" who once dazzled fans playing third base for the Washington Senators but who's now simply struggling to get through one day at a time. Phelan's life went off track years earlier when he accidentally dropped his 13-day-old son on the floor, killing the baby.
The baby's death and other tragic events in Phelan's past haunt him. Phelan vainly tries to forget such incidents. But the harder he tries, the more real his demons become. So as the novel unfolds, many of the people Phelan once knew who died years ago now appear more real to him than the living who walk the streets of Albany. And yet Phelan never asks for anyone's pity. Kennedy wisely avoids sentimentalizing Phelan's struggle to come to terms with his past. Instead, Kennedy bestows honor and dignity on Phelan and his fellow dispossessed friends, writing about the down-and-out with a touch as light and graceful as a concert pianist.
And like Jack Nicholson, who famously portrayed Phelan in a film adaptation of Kennedy's grim novel, narrator Jonathan Davis delivers an astounding reading of Ironweed in the Audible Modern Vanguard production of this book. Like Nicholson, Davis gives an understated yet powerful performance, allowing the grandeur of the author's vivid language to speak for itself. And like Kennedy, Davis veers from a gritty, hardscrabble tone of voice one second, to a solemn, elegiac whisper when expressing Phelan's yearning to set things right in his life once and for all. Ironweed will cling to your memory long after you've parted ways with Phelan and his memorable cast of friends. -Ken Ross
"A kind of fantasia on the strangeness of human destiny, on the mysterious ways in which a life can be transformed and sometimes redeemed...a work of unusual interest, original in its conception, full of energy and color, a splendid addition to the Albany cycle." (The New York Times Book Review)
“Narrator Jonathan Davis guides listeners through the surreal world of life on the streets in the late Depression, where Phelan talks as easily to the dead as he does to his companions. Taking an objective tack, Davis is respectful of the hobos, maintaining their own odd mix of self-worth and self-loathing. As Phelan loosens the emotional knots of his past, Davis steps back just enough to let listeners be haunted by the words.” (Audiofile)
"A powerfully affecting work, abounding in humor and heartbreak." (Chicago Tribune Bookworld)
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pulitzer prize winner for a reason
- B. Leddy