Billy Phelan’s father, Francis, a derelict on the run from his own demons and past mistakes, is the principal character of Ironweed, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. In a 1992 interview with Kennedy, former director of the New York State Writers Institute, the late Tom Smith, characterized Francis as “one of the gigantic, memorable, fallen characters in contemporary fiction … Readers all over the world seem to be able to empathize and identify with this character who is a drunk, a renegade, a runner, a killer … and yet, he’s a character of enormous moral (complexity).” (Seshachari p.207) Saul Bellow wrote of the book: “Francis is also a traditional champion … To kill is his destiny, and he kills American style, with techniques learned in play, throwing a rock like a baseball and … hitting a man with a baseball bat.”
Charles Fanning wrote in The Irish Voice in America: “Finally, comes the least and greatest of the [Albany Cycle’s] protagonists. At age fifty-eight Francis Phelan is an alcoholic vagrant, the murderer of three men with a share of responsibility in several other deaths, and a twenty-year deserter of his wife and children. And yet Kennedy creates him as a plausibly heroic figure holding to an austere set of values … through the course of … forty-eight hours, Francis meets and converses with all of the important ghosts of his past—from his parents, to companions of his youth, to those in whose violent deaths he has been implicated. Is this delirium tremens or is it ‘really’ happening? The quality of the writing makes the question irrelevant. It is simply one more of Kennedy’s successful paradoxes that this least deluded of men has plausible encounters with the dead. Here, Kennedy echoes modern Irish literature, where such encounters are commonplace … Kennedy steps into his narrative to create written effects that call attention to themselves because they are beyond the ken of the novel’s characters, effects attributable directly to the consciousness of a narrative voice above and beyond the action—an intrusive omniscient narrator. There is eloquence in Ironweed, and it blesses characters, situations, events from which it is much harder to extract human dignity and elicit compassion … that is, the lives and deaths of people on the teetering edge of humanity … Kennedy manages to bless these unpromising materials by authorial intrusion, and his methods are lyricism and metaphor … Along with considerable talent, such bold intrusion reveals a high level of confidence about the medium of fiction.
"Unlike many modern novelists who are distant from their characters, Kennedy’s fiction exudes compassion …"
— Robert Towers
Fanning continues: “Kennedy charts his course by the lights of his predecessors … He wanted to be surreal in a way Farrell was not, he wanted to be realistic in a way that O’Connor was not, and he wanted to explore different dimensions of Irish-American life. And so we have the Albany novels, which mix hard, gritty realism with a surreal lyricism of great beauty in the depiction of, among other things, an Irish-American underclass of ruthless criminals, gamblers, and homeless bums, the lowest of the low.”
In his exploration of writing titled First Paragraphs, Donald Newlove wrote of Ironweed that “Kennedy’s power to bring light into dark places and to write tragic dialogue ringing with a Shakespearean blackness strikes me as the happiest art … I, for one, enter the heaven of a writer absolutely on top of his material from the first sound of his voice. His load is light, every page. Pure light. And surely he changes our lives, enriches our understanding of the madness of one drunk in a fellowship of rock-bottom boozers during the Great Depression. It’s not just historical understanding he gives us. We become Francis Phelan, a deep-witted walking grave, lighted up with family ghosts like fireflies in twilight.”
Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Robert Towers called Ironweed “a kind of fantasia on the strangeness of human destiny, on the mysterious ways in which a life can be transformed and sometimes redeemed. Unlike many modern novelists who are distant from their characters, Kennedy’s fiction exudes compassion … a work of unusual interest, original in its conception, full of energy and color, a splendid addition to the Albany cycle.”
Ironweed is included on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 Best Novels in English in the 20th century.
Ironweed was published in Cuba, Denmark, France, Iceland, Israel, Korea, Russia and Taiwan.