Francis’s hands, as he looked at them now, seemed to be messengers from some outlaw corner of his psyche, artificers of some involuntary doom element in his life. He seemed now to have always been the family killer; for no one else he knew of in the family had ever lived as violently as he. And yet he had never sought that kind of life.
Francis Phelan is a man who believes his own hands have betrayed and destroyed him. He lives in an Albany peopled by ghosts, notably his son, Gerald’s, dead 13 days after birth from the broken neck sustained in falling from his father’s hands to the floor. And yet Phelan, the eloquent, violent, dissembling bum hero of William Kennedy’s great novel Ironweed (1983), is the master of these hands. His entire body, though rundown from decades of sleeping in the weeds and on the streets, retains the devastating grace which brought him the accolades of sportswriters and fans as a ballplayer alongside the likes of Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. His first murder weapon is a stone the size and heft of a baseball, and he hurls it through the window of a trolley to impact its strikebreaking driver’s head with uncanny accuracy. His final victim’s death is delivered by the ash barrel of a baseball bat, “with a stroke that would have sent any pitch over any center-field fence in any ball park anywhere.”
It is Kennedy’s distinct accomplishment in this book to have created Phelan as a sympathetic character, despite the murders committed by his hand, the willful abandonment of a wife and children, and the drunken cruelties which precipitate the deaths of his closest friends. Phelan is a thinker and a dreamer, and this is part of his allure; the Ptolomaic aside which concludes the book is the final instance of a life of deep and endearing reflection, a state of consciousness in which the dead live, board buses and trains, erect bleachers on the lawn to stare on Phelan and debate with him his acts against them. He considers his mistakes to be his greatest sins, and his premeditated sins to be the acts of a just “warrior, protecting a belief that no man could ever articulate, especially himself; but somehow it involved protecting saints from sinners, protecting the living from the dead.” He is a man, finally, who has been failed by something more elemental than hands– by fate, and by fact.
Francis was now certain only that he could never arrive at any conclusions about himself that had their origin in reason. But neither did he believe himself incapable of thought. He believed he was a creature of unknown and unknowable quantities, a man in whom there would never be an equanimity of both impulsive and premeditated action.
William Kennedy’s Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, a PEN-Faulkner Award, and was chosen by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century. He join us this January, 2009, for the 27th Annual Key West Literary Seminar: Historical Fiction and The Search for Truth.
These hands belong to Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Mordecai “Three-Finger” Brown. He lost the finger in an accident with farming-machinery as a child, and went on to an extraordinarily successful major league career from 1903-1916, winning more than twenty games six times and recording a 2.06 ERA, third best in history, over 481 games.