Why did you kill me? was the question Harold Allen's eyes put to Francis.
Ironweed is a prime example of the letdown of strong memories; some books you think of very highly at one point in your life only to find upon re-reading them that, though still good, they don't live up to the way you remember them.
Francis Phelan is an ex-ballplayer, an ex-father, and an ex-husband, but he is currently a bum. He has returned to the Albany his youth with his bum ladyfriend Helen, to do bum things like taking small jobs and drinking and sleeping in old ruined cars and drinking. This is the time of the Great Depression, and Phelan's condition is unexceptional; he lives in a subterranean bum culture where he knows everyone and is known by everyone. Francis has no illusions about the cause of his poverty: He is his own downfall. But he is also the downfall of others, and on this pair of days in Albany--Halloween and All Saints' Day--he finds himself being followed by those whose death he has caused in his life. None of these murders is indefensible--the killing of the scab was (mostly) unintentional; another bum he killed when attacked; a horse thief he simply failed to pull onto a moving train-car before he was shot in the back. And yet they are attached to Francis in death nonetheless.
The most significant of these is his son Gerald, whom he dropped as an infant, a crime for which Francis has not forgiven himself and which caused him to leave home. Gerald does not follow Francis around, but they "meet" in the beginning of the book, when Francis visits the graveyard:
In his grave, a cruciformed circle, Gerald watched the advent of his father and considered what action might be appropriate to their meeting. Should he absolve the man of all guilt, not for the dropping, for that was accidental, but for the abandonment of the family, for craven flight when the steadfast virtues were called for? Gerald's grave trembled with superb possibility. Denied speech in life, having died with only monosyllabic goos and gaahs in his vocabulary, Gerald possessed the gift of tongues in death...
Gerald, through an act of silent will, imposed on his father the pressing obligation to perform his final acts of expiation for abandoning the family. You will not know, the child silently said, what these acts are until you have performed them all. And after you performed them you will not understand that they were expiatory any more than you have understood all the other expiation that has kept you in such prolonged humiliation. Then, when these final acts are complete, you will stop trying to die because of me.
Perhaps Francis sees his life as a slow death, inching aimlessly toward the grave that others keep falling into. But perhaps it is through the bum's life--the sickness, the hunger, the decreptitude--that Francis is unconsciously repaying the immensity of his sins. Late in the book Francis revisits the house of his estranged wife, and looks on as the collected souls he has killed build a set of bleachers in the yard. Though Francis' steps toward rehabilitation are small and they seem to come without premeditation, we are invited to see them as a grand finale in which wrongs finally become righted. There is a strong undercurrent of Catholicism in Ironweed, and this is a particularly Catholic idea: To be of a bum is to wear a hairshirt for decades; forty years of saying "hail-mary."
Bits like the ones I quoted above keep the novel interesting, but they are ponderous and Ironweed never seems to come up for air. Even in Francis' rehabilitation the sense of loss is crushing, and Kennedy's slow, genealogically detailed style makes it sometimes a difficult slog. One exception is a long chapter in which we follow Helen, who has left Francis to fend for himself, as she does what bums do all day: wander and scrounge for food. Without the troop of the dead following the narrative, it becomes lighter and more fluid, and perhaps Helen is just more genuinely likeable than Francis. And I think perhaps the conceit of the dead physically following a man around is too doggedly literal; Kennedy shows Francis his ghosts to remind him that they are there, but they are given awfully little to do and too often seem untethered to present events.
Thinking back on the book now, after having put it down for about a week, perhaps my initial thoughts were unfair: Ironweed has a lot to think about, probably more for me now than it did in high school. And yet, I don't think I'll be picking it up a third time.