Writer’s Corner- William Kennedy’s “Ironweed”- Tales Of The Albany Irish Diaspora
Click on the headline to link to a Wikipedia entry for part of William Kennedy’s Albany saga, Ironweed.
Ironweed, William Kennedy, The Viking Press, New York, 1983
The paragraphs below were used to review the book that this film is based on. Since the film very closely follows the story line of the book the comments there can, for the most part, stand here. I would only add that Jack Nicholson’s role as ex- baseball player, hard guy, and hobo “alkie” Fran is probably more understated that the book character (and more understated for him, given some of his more in-your-face roles like in The Shining or Five Easy Pieces). Meryl Streep, well is Merlyn Streep, and plays the role of Helen, Fran’s street companion/lover, to a tee (although she might be a tad bit more beautiful that your average woman rummy). The surprise treat is the secondary role played by raspy singer-songwriter Tom Waits as Fran’s sidekick, Rudy. On reflection though, for those, like me, who know Waits’ later musical, work his role should not be surprised. Who else lately could fill that kind of ‘lost soul’ hobo role so naturally?
William Kennedy is, at least in his Albany stories, my kind of writer. He writes about the trials and tribulations of the Irish diaspora as it penetrated the rough and tumble of American urban WASP-run society, for good or evil. I know those people, their follies and frauds, like the back of my hand. Check. Kennedy writes, as here, about that pervasive hold that Catholicism has even on its most debased sons and daughters, saint and sinner alike. I know those characteristics all too well. Check. He writes about that place in class society where the working class meets the lumpen-proletariat-the thieves, grifters, drifters and con men- the human dust. I know that place well, much better than I would ever let on. Check. He writes about the sorrows and dangers of the effects alcohol on working class families. I know that place too. Check. And so on. Oh, did I mention that he also, at some point, was an editor of some sort associated with the late Hunter S. Thompson down in Puerto Rico. I know that mad man’s work well. Check
The above, in a tangential way, gets you pretty much all you need to know about the why of reading this book (and other stories by Kennedy), except a little something about the plot line. Well, that is fairly simple. Old time baseball star Fran and his erstwhile companion, a gifted singer, Helen are drunks working their way through the edges between skid row and respectability. And, mainly, losing to the lure of the bottle and to the hard, hard struggle that it takes just to get through the day when your options are limited. Put that task together with trying to survive in the jungles, with its endless twisted characters, of Great Depression (that other one in the 1930s) Albany, trying to figure out when life went wrong and trying to figure out why it all went wrong- while fighting a losing battle against society’s expectations- and one’s family’s. This will provide enough dramatic tension to keep you interested. Oh did I mention that Kennedy writes with verve, with an uncanny understanding of his characters (although only Fran and Helen get the full treatment here) and with no holds barred, or punches pulled down there on cheap street. See, that is why Kennedy and Thompson connected in the literary world. They KNOW the underside of life. Read this thing, please.