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Books: Flights of Fact and Fancy

6 minute read
Paul Gray

BIRDY by William Wharton; Knopf;310 pages; $8.95

It is shortly after V-J day and at a military hospital in Kentucky a damaged veteran sits in a padded cell. Or rather he squats and occasionally hops, knees together, fingers laced behind his back, arms flapping. Understandably puzzled, the Army psychiatrist in charge summons the patient’s boyhood friend from the Philadelphia suburbs and asks him to try to break through this strange behavior. Al Columbato brings his own problems with him. He is recovering from plastic surgery on his jaw, smashed in Germany, and from the knowledge of his own profound cowardice under fire. He is not sure that his old buddy in the cell is in any worse shape than he is. “Come on, Birdy,” he says, when the two are alone. “Cut it out!”

Thus begins this daring and unusually complex first novel, part psychological thriller (Can Al reach his friend?), part mystery (What happened to Birdy?). It is also an extended memoir of growing up poor in the 1930s, a detailed portrait of a friendship as firm as it is unlikely and an utterly plausible account of an unbelievable obsession. In classical mythology, Daedalus made wings for a practical reason, so that he and his son could escape the labyrinth. Birdy, it turns out, has built wings too, but craved much more. In his cage, he remembers: “I’m also finding it isn’t so much the flying I want, not as a boy flapping heavy wings; I want to be a bird.”

One sign of the novel’s success is the fact that Birdy’s desire never for an instant seems risible or even, after a while, particularly bizarre. Thoughts from the hero (“What I need is a tail”) that could easily be howlers pass by with the equilibrium of logic and consistency. Method triumphs over madness. In alternating sections, Al reminisces aloud, as much to pass the time as to get through to his apparently oblivious friend, and then Birdy in turn thinks about his past. These two sets of memories are vectors to the present. The personalities of the two men dovetail: Al is profane, athletic, gregarious; Birdy is decorous, wispy and fixated on a world that is real but more acutely visible to him than others. “One hundred billion birds,” he muses, “fifty for every man alive and nobody seems to notice. We live in the slime of an immensity and no one objects. What must our enslavement seem to the birds in the magnitude of their environment?”

In the cell, what actually happened once occurs again in flashbacks. It all starts with pigeons, whose habits and instincts seem so much more exotic to Birdy and Al than the drab, Depression-ridden lives of their families. When Birdy falls 100 ft. off a gas tower in pursuit of more birds (“the first time I flew”) and miraculously survives, he is grounded by his parents but allowed to keep a canary in his room. Al drifts away, increasingly preoccupied with high school sports and girls. For the sake of appearances, Birdy makes an effort to crank up similar interests: “I’ve tried watching girls’ legs to find out what the excitement is about, but they all look the same to me. One has a bit more flesh here or there, one has more wrinkly knees than another, or the ankle bones stick out more or less, but, so what?” His canary, on the other hand, is female and beautiful in his eyes. Birdy buys her a mate, begins breeding them and slowly enters imaginatively into the life of his aviary.

Birdy’s ascent into this world possesses the eerie beauty of good surrealism. The dream he constructs (of becoming a canary, mating with his sweetheart, teaching his young to fly) begins to overtake his life; things that happen at night become precognitions of the next day. He is heading for a fall, knows it and continues. What the outside world offers is simply the inevitability of being drafted when he finishes high school, of wrenching him from his birds, his extended family. Knowing he must leave it makes his private world ever more intense, a work of art founded on schizophrenia.

Not all of Birdy reaches these heights. The conclusion is a letdown, the magic partially dissipated in explanations. Birdy and Al are not above dime-store philosophizing, attempting to blame their wounds on their cramped pasts. Their recollections, in fact, sound almost idyllic, a Norman Rockwell vision of mischievous childhood with none of the grime and flavor airbrushed out.

These few flaws arise from excess, from an ambitious giving of more than is strictly required. First Novelist William Wharton (the pseudonym of a Philadelphia-born painter now in his mid-50s and living in Paris) is nothing if not audacious, and his skills and determination make good on promises. Like his afflicted hero, Wharton tries the impossible, and the result, though linked to earth, mysteriously soars.

Excerpt

” In my dream I go to the birds. I tell them it is time to leave. I tell them if they go into the cage to sleep they will be closed in the cage and put into small cages. At first, they do not understand me, then they do not believe me. Alfonso speaks; he says he knows what I say is true, that I have never lied to the birds. It is time to leave. He says he knows how to go, that it is a long flight and some will die, but he is going, so is Birdie, and they are leaving in the early morning. I listen and I’m sad. The birds are excited.

At dawn, all are ready; we go up in a single movement. Alfonso is at the head of the flock. We fly straight south, over the top of the gas tank, over Lansdowne, down over Chester and I am with them. I’m wondering what is happening with my life. Will I ever wake up in my own bed again?

Then, somehow I am not with them. I am in the sky, flying, watching them go . . . I see myself as bird, with them, flying, up behind Alfonso and Birdie. I know I will be with them wherever they go. I watch from my place in the sky as they, we, become small spots getting smaller until there is only sky.”

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