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Wednesday, December 25

Ironweed by William Kennedy

Fear and guilt are the most powerful emotions in the world, drawing the actions and choices of the characters of William Kennedy's novel, Ironweed.  The book was winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1984 and William Kennedy won the 2009 O’Neill Award for Lifetime Achievement. Apart from worldwide recognition, the author turned his book into an excellent script for the movie with the same name, directed by Hector Babenco and starring Jack Nicholson and Meryl Streep. Therefore, it is much easier for the imaginative reader to add a face and a great performance to the unforgettable characters, Francis Phelan and Helen Archer. They are on the bum, drinking themselves into oblivion, running away from the sins of the past and the despair of the future. Depression years in Albany, New York, are tough times for everybody, especially for the homeless, whose dreams failed to come true and to whom redemption is forbidden.

Francis and Helen have been together for nine years, both trying to find solace in drinking, the former to forget having accidentally killed his 13-day old son, Gerald, the latter, in an attempt to come to terms with her choices and past. Francis used to be a talented baseball player who ran away from his wife and two children, Bill and Peg, after having dropped his little son, Gerald. His wife, Annie, has never revealed this secret to anyone, thus protecting a man whom she always loved despite his obvious mistakes. Blood is thicker than water and family members are always there for you- to judge you, to forgive you, to scold you and to wipe away all harm. Why do people always need to cling to other people to feel complete? Frances's grown-up children seem to lead an ordinary adult existence, yet their father's sudden return into their lives feels as natural and necessary as the next thing. Mother and grown-up children acted as if they had been expecting the head of the family all their lives, as if time stood still and twenty years of absence vanished into thin air.

Bum life is all about cold, dirt and hardship. Bums lack clothes, food, shelter, dignity, intimacy, respect, a future, health, money, love, family- in a word, a decent life. You might think that going bum is a choice and that certain people decide to lead such a life of misery, when, in fact, there is a broken soul behind every pair of bum eyes. Booze seems to be the only consolation, though it is only short-lived and more depressing. Frances has led a tough life, had to make tough choices and now the past is coming back to haunt him. The people he accidentally or intentionally killed have materialised themselves into silent ghosts that follow him everywhere, bringing back old and painful memories about bad choices. When all explanations are given, when all demons are confronted, Frances is left only with guilt- that of having put a sudden end to his infant's life, that of having abandoned his family, that of forcing Helen to make compromises. The guilt of having taken several lives has grown roots into him, turning Frances into a lifetime hobo who could never find peace of mind and put an end to his restlessness.

Apart from the short-lived happiness Frances felt around his wife and children, the only nice episode of his broken life is Katrina. His first love, the woman next door, builds herself into a lively hallucination that takes Frances down the memory lane in a series of flashbacks. Katrina was not only the woman who showed him how love felt but also filled his empty life with unspoken emotions. Helpless Katrina later becomes needy Helen, whom Frances fails to protect and keep safe on the bum; compromise means survival and the love thrills of teenage love are long gone, alive merely in enghosted memories. The only strong, mature woman in his life is Annie, his wife who takes him in and back, effacing all twenty-two years of hardship, grief and loss.

William Kennedy has a special sensitivity that lives in every word and breathes in every character. The book has humour, imagery and great characters. The scenes about bum life are the core of the book in terms of poetry and richness. Seeing the world through books is smart and rewarding, a certain manner of enriching yourself and expanding your horizons. Ironweed feels like a tender touch, a memorable journey into the plentifulness of the human soul, the colourful layers of goodness and broken hopes in everyone of us. 

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