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Editorial Reviews

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

Publisher's Summary

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.

Listen to more Audible Modern Vanguard titles.
©1984 William Kennedy (P)2009 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"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)

What members say

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  • Michael
  • Walnut Creek, CA, United States
  • 07-22-17

Darkly Lovely

This writing is almost magical. The novel follows a bum in Albany NY during the great depression and his interaction with other destitute homeless, the desperately poor, and his estranged family as he faces deadly cold, wild dogs, his own deeds, his memories, and his mortality. One might expect the subject matter to be dark, and maybe even depressing but, as I said, this writing is almost magical. The author immerses the reader in a strange glow of friends and family and love and home that changes the hue of the hunger, scars, and fears into something truly lovely.

The narration was excellent subtly expressing the conflicting emotions of the character very well, adding pleasure to the listening.

The was my first William Kennedy novel and I will add the others in the Albany Series to my queue.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Cheryl
  • Douglasville, GA, United States
  • 10-27-14

A Depressing Heartwarming Story

This was a great character story about the protagonist, Francis Phelan, his friend, Rudy, his long time significant other, Helen, and his life of pain, alcoholism, terrible coincidences, and frustrated dreams.

I liked how the ghosts/characters of his past kept appearing and watching him. I liked Francis, felt sorry for him, and cheered for him.

The author, William Kennedy's writing style is excellent. The narrator, Jonathan Davis, was perfect.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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pulitzer prize winner for a reason

This is a great study of the psychology underpinning homelessness and addiction. The move with Jack Nicholson and Merryl Streep was good, but don't miss the book - very good.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Story

What a sad, sorrowful story

Some time ago, a man in our area took his little boy deer hunting on a cold winter morning. The boy must have been about 4 years old. He had fallen asleep and was secured into his car seat when the dad left for a while to go deer spotting. When he got back, the boy was gone. He was found sometime later, not too far from the truck, frozen to death. I can only imagine the grief this poor man must have experienced. On top of that, he was charged with negligent homicide. On the morning of his arraignment, the man told his friends he would be back in time for it, but he just wanted to go up to the spot where his baby had died. When he got there, he took his own life. I do not judge this man for what he did. Fact is, I would probably have done the same thing if it had happened to me. How could you resume your life as a responsible, contributing adult after something like that?

That is the feeling tone of ???Ironweed.??? It is a dark, dirty, sordid and sad story. Francis Phelan was on a long journey away from the circumstances of his existence, but eventually found himself trying to go home. I learned so much from this book on so many levels. We worry about so many stupid things, but Fran and his compatriots only worried about two: 1) Where will I sleep tonight? And 2) Where and when will I find something to eat? Those are pretty basic levels on Maslow???s hierarchy of needs. Still, Fran shows some hope for a more normal life in the face of acceptance and love from the family he abandoned 22 years earlier. I do not recommend this book to just anyone. It is beautifully written, but deals with a dark and somber story among the seedier members of society. Not much about it is light hearted or happy. It is a long ride through much pain and sorrow before even a glimmer of hope is found. Nevertheless, the book ends with us having reason to hope that Francis at last finds a modicum of peace and love within the shelter of his family???s love. This story is bound to be on my mind for a long time.

The narrator is very good, but has an annoying way of saying '"Francis said . . ." or whoever. I guess I eventually got used to it, but would hesitate to get another book narrated by him for that reason. Otherwise, he was very good.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Jorden
  • DrontenNetherlands
  • 04-11-10

Splendid grim tale

Great story that takes place in early 20th century, about an alcoholic that comes back to his hometown he left so long ago. A reunion with ghosts, memories and family. The characters and town really come alive, William Kennedy is an awesome story teller.

I personally love the narrator, one of the reasons I chose to get this book. The other reason was that this book was on critics' lists, and for good reason. You're safe spending your credit on this one.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • Overall
  • Steve
  • coquitlam, British Columbia, Canada
  • 05-22-10

Beautiful!

Will listen to the other books in the trilogy.