In the exqiusite Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, author William Kennedy introduces us to Francis Phelan, former star pitcher, and now-dissolute, wandering drunk. Phelan is driven from his family by the tragic death of his infant son who slips out of a dirty diaper and dies. Francis cannot live with the guilt over his drunken role in his son’s death and takes to wandering, accompanied by the raggedy-ass Rudy, and Helen, the woman wino he doesn’t so much love as feel he deserves. Throughout the book, Phelan encounters the ghosts of the dead, including a man he killed in a labor riot, who still sports the wound in his head where Phelan struck him with a rock. Francis cannot escape the entombing ennui of his past and is haunted at every juncture. And no matter where he wanders to, he cannot escape it and eventually realizes he must return home to the family that still loves and hates him. It is a towering novel that was the coda to the Albany Trilogy Kennedy wrote in the 80’s. the other two books, Legs (a fictional account of the rise and fall of the brutal and oddly soulful “Legs” Diamond) and Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game (an account of Francis’s son Bill a pool-room hustler and gambler who gets mixed up in the kidnapping of a bookie) are also well worth reading. These are, for me, the high-water marks in American literature of the 1980’s, along with Louise Erdrich’s, Love Medicine.
While Frrancis Phelan is not a hobo per se, he sure acts a lot like one; hopping freights and aimlessly wandering to find something like peace or a place in the world. There are many reasons for men being driven out into the world without a rudder. Shame is a recurring theme in much of the literature that involves those we know as “hobos.”
William Kennedy has since written other novels set in Albany with some of the same characters. Very Old Bones is also a shimmering achievment and Roscoe, a tale of a corrupt yet infinitely likable lawyer, are also well-worth your time.
I think part of what has drawn me to Kennedy’s novels all of these years is that they are set among the Albany Irish, and we’re not all that different after many generations. We are still easily shamed by improprieties, real and imagined; we love our mothers and we are the most vengeful, grudge-carrying, motherfuckers on earth. The deep well of bitterness wired into our history of being the conquered has imbued into our DNA a gallows humor so black and yet so funny, it makes people think we are a cheery bunch of happy assholes. We’re not. When crossed, our hearts are as deeply black as the North Atlantic Ocean and when untethered, we wander the earth looking for grace.
This is the hobo symbol for “Tramps here.”