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A Bum’s Life – Ironweed by William Kennedy

Ironweed by William Kennedy

Before the title page of the novel is a description of the ironweed. What is it? It is a kind of plant that resembles a sunflower, blue-purple in color. What’s so special about it is that the plant is super tough. With that, what would you expect from the characters of the novel? Tempered from the hardest stuff. Not wimps, you might say?

Even the cover of my edition shows a portrait of a man, presumably the protagonist Francis Phelan. Long face, sunken cheeks, furrows between the brows, and eyes that seem to tell you not to mess with him. Before the hard face, Francis was a baseball player. Now, he’s a gravedigger. Part time, that is, for he is a full-time bum. And like most bums, they have their stories to tell.

Two things in Francis’s past: he accidentally killed a man during a strike and he accidentally killed his own son by accidentally dropping him on the floor. The first one can really qualify as an accident. Things like that happen, given that he was once a professional baseball player. But the latter one? It sure is one case of an unlikely event.

So what’s there to read in this novel filled with bums, accidents, and yes, guilt?

Helen’s first death.

Her second came to her in a mathematics class at Vassar when she was a freshman of two months. Mrs. Carmichael, who was pretty and young and wore high shoes and walked with a limp, came for Helen and brought her to the office. A visitor, said Mrs. Carmichael, your uncle Andrew: who told Helen her father was ill,

And on the train up from Poughkeepsie changed that to dead,

And in the carriage going up State Street hill from the Albany depot added that the man had,


Thrown himself off the Hawk Street viaduct.

I selected that one because it is, I believe, an ingenious device to sustain the suspense contained in the sentences. Using commas and then dropping the succeeding words into new paragraphs is something that I rarely see. Actually, it’s now only this instance that I remember it being used.

Anyway, Francis, as already mentioned, bums with around with other bums and with ghosts. Yes, unlikely companies, you might think. Boring, even. But no, they do interact with Francis. They are the ghosts of his past. They would not let go; they are very clingy. They are like some old friends chitchatting and queueing up with our protagonist for their food stamps.

The bums depend heavily on these freebies. They even do stuff in order to eat something for free. Like there’s this church that feeds the churchgoers some bowls of soup. And what do you know? Bums are seen kneeling, responding, and practicing a religion that most of them do not hold on to.

But really, Francis does not need to go through this. He has a family waiting for him, and yet, why does he choose to lead such a destitute life? One reason is his guilt. He carries the burden of having killed two persons. Accident or not, he nurses this guilt, which is too powerful a force to ignore. It is capable of controlling our actions, and so Francis subjects himself to it. And what does it lead him to do?

Run away. Funny, because Francis is a champ at running around the baseball field. And funny too, that a physical skill could pass over to other intangible aspects of our lives. And what if he gets rid of this guilt? He might stop running away and stick to his family, right? He could be comfortable, clean, and well-fed. After all, they are waiting. But does he still have them? And if he doesn’t, what’s there left for him to own except mounds and mounds of guilt?

4 star - really liked itHe might as well run away for a long time if that’s case and lead a spectacular bum life. You see, he’s a different kind. Yes, he doesn’t smell nice, he has missing teeth, but there’s something forceful about his personality. There’s something admirable about him. Never mind that he left his family and chose the uncomfortable yet carefree ways of the bums.

Probably because it’s easy to sympathize with Francis; he is like a real living person described on the pages. It could be a biography, but no folks, it’s all about effective characterization. And oh, only in this novel have I seen a bum that would not sleep and walk all over the city just because there’s no dingy motel or dilapidated car to spend the night.

These are posh bums, I tell you.


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