Michael Downs on the novel that changed his life

Ironweed_coverWe had been seeing each other for maybe a month, brief enough a time that I hadn’t even admitted we were dating. In that way young people do, we had shared our ambitions, our hopes. She wanted to move to Montana. I wanted to write fiction. What “write fiction” meant was unclear to me. In truth, like most aspiring writers, I hadn’t read much. I was a newspaper reporter, and that’s the writing I did, and the writing I read.

One night, in her condo near downtown Hartford, she handed me Ironweed by William Kennedy. I’d never heard of the title or author. A man with intense eyes and a long neck stared at me from the cover. You could not deny his existence. He demanded you see him. This was her copy with her name written in blue ink on the first page along with the year she’d bought it. She said it was a great book. It is. I would learn that. Still, what possessed her to share with me–a man she’d just started to date–a book about a homeless drunk wracked by guilt?

“Riding up the winding road of Saint Agnes Cemetery,” the novel began, “in the back of the rattling old truck, Francis Phelan became aware that the dead, even more than the living, settled down in neighborhoods.” The second line contained a word I didn’t know (for the record: cenotaph). Unpracticed at reading literature, I wandered through the pages sometimes confused, sometimes dazzled, and in the end, ravished by the banjo music Francis hears on the last page, music made by whiskey bottles and the moon.

Before Ironweed, I’d not known what fiction I might write. After, I knew that if a one-time newspaper reporter (Irish-Catholic like me) could make such a book as this about Albany, then perhaps I could write about Hartford, another middling northeastern city that happened to be my hometown. Ironweed gave me a direction. Over the years, I would read it five more times, get William Kennedy to sign it, and read all his other books. Years later, my first book of fiction is linked stories set in Hartford, and those stories connect through neighborhoods and people, work and bars, and imagination and history–much as Kennedy connects his novels.

My writing career started with the gift of a book. A loaner, true, but a gift nonetheless. Why she chose Ironweed I still don’t know, but it is evidence that she took seriously my ambition, even though there was at the time nothing serious about it. She respected a dream I hardly knew to dream.

What do you do with a woman like that? Reader, I married her.