” But Ruth is right. It is something—it can be everything—to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle. ” (Part Five, Ch.4, p.213)
The Spectator Bird follows the life of Joe Allston, a retired literary agent who fell into his job by chance and found himself trafficking in the talents of others. Now in old age, Joe, who has always been full of himself but uncertain and dismayed, is looking back on his life in which he has been a spectator. The arrival of a postcard from one Astrid Wredel-Krarup evokes memories of a trip to Denmark he and his wife took twenty years ago. The pilgrimage to his mother’s cottage, which turned out to be as futile as he expected, actually sealed his life with some significance. The narrative lapses in and out of diary entries from that trip as he read them out loud to his wife.
What I felt while reading that diary, and what I somehow can’t tell her or talk about with her, is how much has been lost, how much is changed, since 1954. I really am getting old. It comes as a shock to realize that I am just killing time till time gets around to killing me. (Part Two, Ch.3, p.89)
However grotesque and moving the memories were from Denmark, re-visiting the diaries, whose existence his wife was not informed, has been a reassuring and enlightening experience. For years Joe has been in search of foundations in his unsecured life, examining the shadows his life casts on other lives. The loss of his son has been upsetting and inconsolable. What hurt to be mitigated over time only thickens like calluses, as he licks his wound, reminiscing, and ruminating, how his demands might have driven his son over the edge. (You can read more about Joe Allston’s son in All the Little Live Things)
Despite the brooding over his son and the myopic hindsight on the Danish episode, The Spectator Bird is about a man’s soul searching and aging with dignity. The existence of the diaries, and the story they have to tell, ultimately teach him an important lesson about life. Although certain aspects of the Danish episode left scars on his soul, both he and his wife are in accord that it is far better that they have experienced it. It makes them realize that true marital communion does not allow room for dishonesty. Stegner’s style is at once brilliant, contemplative, and effortless. So often that you have to read between the lines to appreciate the intimacy of the marriage. This is a book about love, about duty, about the sweet fulfillment of an enduring marriage, and about the sad futility of age. It is about kindness and despair; about joy and the bittersweet sadness of unrequited love.
214 pp. University of Nebraska Press Edition. [Read/
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