Sep 24, 2008

Francis Feeds Phelans as Terry's Turkey Tantalizes Thirteen

Terry’s dinner last Wednesday was quite a feat: he picked a fine novel for discussion, he set a superb table replete with butterflied roast turkey, new potatoes, and pumpkin pie, and he neatly connected both despite the hunger and scarcity that pervades Ironweed. Terry credited John with the recipe for the main course, and the irony wasn’t lost on us. The man whose vision of scarcity led to our eating from unmarked cans during our discussion of The Road now inspires fine meals in the kitchens of others.

As our host, Terry began his duties with a new MBC ritual. Not only did he share the fruits of his larder, he also shared some of his personal story during dinner. Raised in a separatist Christian environment, Terry described how he grew up and later broke away (to Bible college, then to Harvard, and eventually to Marin County). His story gave us new insight on the power of communes and religious cults in America.

Speaking of communes, we were fascinated to hear about the largest annual in-gathering of artists, healers, and hedonists in the United States. Thanks to Garth and Glenn, we got the rundown on this year’s Burning Man Festival. We were amazed by the scale of Burning Man (48,000 people camped in the desert!), impressed by the absence of commerce, intrigued by its celebration of fire and art, and (mildly) titillated by the anything-goes nature of this vast encampment.
The Book
The inspiration for Terry’s turkey dinner came, of course, from the novel’s protagonist, Francis Phelan, who stays sober just long enough to deliver a 12-lb turkey to his estranged wife and grown children. After dinner, Francis returns to the streets and to the cycle of drunken violence that scars his journey through adulthood. Through his eyes, Kennedy sketches a life of talent and possibility that is hopelessly dulled by alcohol and riven with guilt.

The early reviews of Ironweed (i.e., the crossfire of emails before the meeting) were not encouraging. Stan, Peter and George complained that this month’s selection was depressing and continued the tired theme of middle-aged angst. None of them was at the meeting and--without their bullying--we reached a different consensus. Indeed, our discussion found much more to admire than to criticize in Kennedy’s writing, his characters, and his view of Albany street life in 1938.

The writing certainly had us taking sides: it started slowly for Roy, bogged in the middle for Tom, and closed too slowly for me. The alternating narrative voice gave us interesting perspectives, but John and Doug both commented on how intentionally unreliable the narrator became as Kennedy forced us to make our own judgments about the effect of alcohol on the characters’ memory and observation (e.g., the impact of Helen’s singing or the choice of endings for Francis). Some of us found the story’s mystical elements a little distracting, but Dean felt that Francis’ ghosts gave him a special clairvoyance and Glenn (Jack? Doug? Dan?) noted that the ghosts were a clever narrative shortcut into Francis’ past.

Kennedy leaves little room for ambiguity about his characters and their choices: no one is on the street (or bottle) by accident. Indeed, Kennedy’s main characters repeatedly articulate the universal themes of reason and free will coupled with their own interpretations of morality and mortality. While Chris felt that the accidental death of his child transformed Francis and pre-ordained his future, Kennedy hints that the opposite may be true: Francis chooses to kill people (the ghosts), help people (Helen), and visit people (his family) for quite rational reasons. His individuality stands in real contrast to, as Larry and Jack both observed, the homeless people we see every day and whose stories we don’t know.

Ironweed’s environment aroused our interest as much as the characters did. While the 1930’s diction was praised (Tom) and criticized (Armando), Kennedy’s evocation of place and time was powerful enough that it took Armando back to a parallel moment with his father in the 1970’s. We look forward to the rest of that story when it’s Armando’s turn to host….

Our fourteen votes, combined with proxies from Peter (4) and George (8), pushed Ironweed's rating above the mean to a surprisingly strong 7.3.

Next Up
For the second time, the upcoming host was not present to defend his choices. As a consequence, we rejected Jeff’s posted choices and instead adopted his last-minute addition, T. J. English’s Havana Nocturne, which meets our selection criteria only if we stretch them beyond recognition. T.J. English is indeed a man and is also a past winner of the Humanitas Prize, which sounds impressive until you learn that it is awarded each year to honor outstanding TV screenplays in various categories. Hmmm…didn’t we turn to books as an alternative to television?


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Andrew,

    What is a television? Is that a small box to see shows at home when you don't have time for the movies?

    You did properly note my hesitation to read another depressing male angst book however, you separated that note from the fact that I did give the book an eight. Indeed Kennedy somehow got me to wander with Phelan and want to know what would happen next.

    While others saw the accidental death of his child as a sign of things to come in his life, I see it more as a warning to all of us that our lives can be so affected by a quick and untimely event. Phelan chose to run. I hope that we would choose to stand.

    As an aside, I wonder if John Updike read Kennedy before he drafted the Rabbit series, which starts with Rabbit, Run.

  3. George, I failed to note that your early misgivings about the book were later trumped by a positive rating. Forgive me. And I will forgive you your analogizing the boob tube to the cinema, a sacred medium if there ever was one!

    Your comment about the significance of a single event in one's life echoes what Chris said at the meeting. But even seminal events like the death of a child don't eliminate the choices one makes later...and Phelan makes plenty of them.

    As for Updike, I recall that his Rabbit series started way before this book was published. Could be wrong. Anyway, when are you going to muster the votes to get us to read Updike?