Sometimes the Scariest Ghosts Are Our Own

How a Drunken Drifter Finally Made It Home After 22 Years

Ben Self / 12.8.21

In the first chapter of William Kennedy’s 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Ironweed, the protagonist Francis Phelan wanders through an old Catholic cemetery on Halloween. Almost immediately, it becomes clear that something strange is afoot: Francis is being hauntedBut don’t be fooled. This isn’t high-brow Goosebumps. It opens in broad daylight, for starters, and Francis is not some wide-eyed teenager looking for graveyard thrills, but a 58-year-old drifter — penniless, sockless, filthy — working a one-day gig as a gravedigger. It’s 1938, deep in the Great Depression, and this is the best work a “bum” like Francis can get. 

It’s not just any cemetery, either. This is Saint Agnes Cemetery in Francis’s hometown of Albany, New York, the final resting place of many of his own family members. And this happens to be the first time Francis has been back to see anyone in 22 years. Why has the prodigal returned? Why now? No one, at least among the living, seems to know. Least of all Francis. 

As his work truck winds through the cemetery, figures from his past begin to stir in their graves, including his father, who hopes to “catch a glimpse of how much his son had changed.” In the nearly half-century since his father’s death by train, it’s clear Francis hasn’t aged well. Another pair of relatives soon nod toward Francis from their plots, recognizing in his face the “scars of alcoholic desolation.” Alcoholism, we soon learn, has been a dominant force in Francis’s life for decades — as both a symptom and a cause of his desolation. 

Over the course of the novel, Francis’s life story unfolds much like this through each successive encounter with the literal ghosts of his past, and it becomes increasingly apparent that he’s been both a bystander and perpetrator in a long string of tragedies. Haunted by these experiences, he’s spent much of his life on the run, using both distance and booze to keep the ghosts at bay. 

At one point, Kennedy suggests that Francis has never really suffered any illusions about the nature of his drinking: He knows booze will never fix him, that it only helps relieve the pain of his self-hatred, of having to face what he feels can never be fixed — wrongs that can never be righted, sins that can never be forgiven. And yet the booze has long since become its own engine of suffering and iniquity in Francis’s life. His plight brings to mind the narrator in Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “An Alcoholic Enters the Gates of Heaven.” As Milosz writes, 

I began my life confident and happy […]

Not suspecting that you had picked me from the Book of Genes
for another experiment altogether. […]

Under your amused glance I suffered
like a caterpillar impaled on the spike of a blackthorn.
The terror of the world opened itself to me.

What is the “terror” the alcoholic faces? Well, for Francis, the terror is himself. At this stage, it’s unlikely that drinking is really much of a choice for Francis, if it ever was. And in any case, despite suffering “like a caterpillar impaled,” drowning himself has long seemed a better option than having to face his ghosts head-on. Even if he could, why change course now? 

And yet, inexplicably, as if by some strange miracle, after decades on the run and still the same drunk, here Francis is back in Albany: Ghost Central Station. And his ghosts have plans. 

As he wanders around Albany being stalked and confronted by numerous apparitions over the course of Halloween and All Saints’ Day, we soon realize that none of them are anonymous. They are his ghosts. The only dead people he sees are the ones he knows all too well, each a person he injured, wronged, or disappointed in life. And Francis is rightfully disquieted, because he has done some terrible things: At least two of the spooks are people he murdered. 

But the death that has haunted him most is that of his newborn son. It was Gerald’s death of a broken neck at 13 days old — after Francis inadvertently “let the child slip out of its diaper” — that finally broke his heart, kickstarting his alcoholism back in 1916, prompting him to leave town, abandon his wife and other kids, and never come home. And it’s Francis’s cemetery encounter with Gerald’s ghost in the very first chapter that really frames the novel. 

Francis shambles over to Gerald’s grave — which he’s never visited before, but is somehow drawn toward — and weeps. Throwing himself onto the ground, “the uprush of [his] polluted life all but asphyxiated him.” Francis recounts aloud to Gerald every detail he recalls from that fateful day in 1916, and then wonders if “now that I can remember this stuff out in the open, I can finally start to forget it?” Moved, Gerald’s ghost responds with an act of goodwill, imposing on Francis an “obligation to perform […] acts of expiation for abandoning the family.” “You will not know,” the child silently conveys, “what these acts are until you have performed them all. […] [But when they] are complete, you will stop trying to die because of me.” 

This encounter marks the start of a vital shift in Francis’s now-ebbing life, and offers just the first of many hints that these ghosts may not be quite as malevolent as Francis believes. In fact, the reader slowly comes to realize that the opposite is true: These spooks are strange emissaries of God’s love, conspiring in Francis’s redemption. That doesn’t mean, of course, he actually likes having them around — likes being reminded of the worst mistakes and most traumatic moments of his life. No, Francis resents them to the very end, as we all presumably would. 

But while Gerald’s ghost never returns, Francis’s story unfurls much as he foretold — as a strange, haphazard journey of confession and unintentional expiation. Each interaction Francis has in the novel — with the living or the dead — becomes a kind of broader accounting of his sins, unraveling the dark knots of shame that have bound him for so many years. 

Francis himself is a mostly passive figure in this process, a vessel being moved upon by forces he does not understand or control, both sinister and ultimately salvific. At one point, he laments his “traitorous hands” — “messengers from some outlaw corner of his psyche” that he feels have acted on his behalf to cause enormous injury. But this recognition too is part of the unraveling. About three-quarters of the way through the novel, Francis has a kind of epiphany about his own tragic fallenness:

He sensed for the first time in his life the workings of something other than conscious will within himself: insight into a pattern, an overview of all the violence in his history, of how many had died or been maimed by his hand. 

And yet somehow that realization doesn’t bury him. If anything, his long ordeal of confession — a haunted journey into self-awareness — seems to release him from a kind of suicide pact with the world. In fact, it’s not long after this grim insight that the great climactic miracle of Ironweed occurs: Francis finally stumbles home to the family he abandoned 22 years before.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say his long-delayed return goes nothing like he expected. Francis shows up at their door with a large frozen turkey — worth half his day’s wages — as if it will somehow soften his family’s response. Apparently, his plan was to just drop off the turkey, say hello, and leave. He claims he just wants to see their faces. “I ain’t expectin’ to be forgiven,” Francis tells his initially-hesitant daughter. “I’m way past that.” 

But to his astonishment, he is immediately welcomed in with delighted surprise and open arms by his wife — and by evening’s end, is likewise received by his other family with extraordinary grace and warmth. Despite his persistent impulse to cut and run, his family are able to rope him into staying for a while, patiently listening to him tell his stories, confess his sins, and make awkward attempts to reconnect. Along the way, they re-clothe him, help clean him up, compliment him profusely, and slip money into his pockets. At last, as the evening winds down, the whole family sits together for a glorious turkey dinner — as if nothing ill had ever passed between them, as if nothing had ever been lost after all, as if no wrong could not somehow be righted in the end — a reunion after God’s own heart. 

Francis understandably experiences no shortage of bewilderment during all this. At one point before dinner, as he takes a bath in the upstairs restroom — symbolically washing off the stench of his “polluted life” — Francis has another epiphany of sorts: 

He trembled with the heat, with astonishment that he was indeed here, as snug in this steaming tub as was the turkey in its roasting pan. He felt blessed. He stared at the bathroom sink, which now had an aura of sanctity about it, its faucets sacred, its drainpipe holy, and he wondered whether everything was blessed at some point in its existence, and he concluded yes.

Yes, even Francis the hopeless “bum” — who by his own admission “ain’t worth a goddamn in the world” — finds himself “blessed,” finds his tragic life anointed by grace. And perhaps most surprising to him, raising himself up out of the bath to look out the window, Francis discovers that out in the yard below, his ghosts have erected “a wooden structure that Francis was already able to recognize as bleachers.” Turns out they’d been rooting for him all along.

Does Francis “get his life together” and quit drinking in the end? Hardly. His story, though one of redemption, is still deeply tragic. After leaving his family’s house, it’s not even clear if Francis will ever go home again, and in the final chapter he is still drinking, still prone to violence, and still haunted. But amidst this tragedy, there is life and forgiveness and healing.

Often the ghosts that terrorize us most in life are our own — the ghosts of people we have wronged or let down, of things we’ve done or left undone, continue to do or fail to do. But as much as our mistakes haunt us, there is someone else who is haunting us — the Ghost of One whose blood was “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Christ too, with his great cloud of witnesses, is ever haunting us, unwilling to let us go, unwilling to let our sin and shame have the last word.

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