Birdy, by William Wharton

birdy

I saw the movie version of Birdy, with Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage, long ago, and it’s one I like a lot. I have a soft spot for that film, and a fondness for its main characters.

I don’t think I even knew until fairly recently that the movie was taken from a book of the same name, by first time novelist William Wharton. And it was a pretty big deal when it came out: It got critical raves and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

I think if I had read the book first I would have pegged it as a difficult book to make into a movie, mainly because so much of it takes place inside the mind of the title character.

Birdy is the story of two working class Philly boys. One, nicknamed Birdy, is a quirky nonconformist with almost no social skills—or really almost no interest in the kind of socializing his peers are learning—and an extreme fascination, indeed obsession, with birds. The other, Al, is a tough Sicilian kid, brutally beaten by his father any time he gets out of line—which is often, indicating that extreme corporal punishment may not be such an effective child-raising technique—and interested in girls, sports, working out, making money, and conventional stuff like that, though deeper intellectually and more sensitive than you might picture someone of that description.

Al and Birdy form an unlikely friendship, sharing numerous common and decidedly uncommon adventures as they grow up together.

The book is written in the first person, alternating between Al and Birdy, Al in conventional font and Birdy in italics. Mostly it alternates by chapter, but occasionally the perspective changes within a chapter.

The book is set in the psych ward of an Army hospital, where Birdy is confined and where Al has been brought in to try to reach him and help him in a way the staff has not been able to. By this time, Al and Birdy are young adults and have both been in combat. The time period is the final days of World War II; the boys were just barely old enough to have to go in the military right at the end of the war. (The movie is set instead in the Vietnam era. Other than that, as I recall it sticks fairly closely to the book.)

Al has been severely wounded physically, with the most serious damage being to his face. As it is still wrapped in bandages, he doesn’t know for sure just how bad it is. Likely no one will know for sure until all the plastic surgery to rebuild his face is done.

He has also been wounded emotionally. His self-image as the confident, tough guy has been shattered, as he now must live with the knowledge that he was completely and totally terrified by combat. Not to mention he may have to find a way to adjust to civilian life with physical limitations and/or a seriously disfigured face. Though his role now is to see if he can somehow help Birdy back to sanity, at times he wants nothing so much as to release his own grip on reality, to either become non-functional or feign being non-functional, so that he too can live institutionalized with no responsibilities and no expectations, having others care for him.

At least to the outside eye, though, Birdy is the one who has really lost it. He squats in his locked room all day, uncommunicative, nearly catatonic, barely moving except for peculiar hops, mostly gazing blankly toward a high window. Al immediately recognizes that he is behaving like a bird, but no one else seems to have picked up on that.

We learn of their preceding years of friendship in flashbacks, as each recalls their childhood. The Al sections go back and forth between those memories and what is now happening in the hospital; the Birdy sections, until almost the very end, are only about the past.

I initially found the narrative style just a little hard to get used to, mostly because I don’t picture either character speaking or writing in the intellectual, psychologically deep, insightful, articulate, literary style of the book. Birdy is mentally ill and lives almost totally inside himself, Al is a rough-around-the-edges guy with little interest in school and books and such, and both are probably only 19 or whatever. I just don’t imagine them telling their stories this way, in these words.

But once I interpreted the narrative style as not so much intended to reflect how they are really capable of telling their stories, but more how they would tell them if they could fully articulate everything going on inside them, then it wasn’t that difficult to adjust to.

As they describe their youth, we see both from the outside from Al’s perspective, and especially from Birdy’s autobiographical recollections, just how extreme Birdy’s obsession with birds gradually becomes.

Some of the bird activities they do together, like raising pigeons. But for Al it’s 80% a way to make money and 20% a fun hobby that doesn’t mean any more to him than temporary childhood hobbies like that do for most of us.

But birds come to thoroughly dominate Birdy’s consciousness, and to dominate his life to the maximal extent consistent with maintaining functionality; i.e., continuing to do enough to get by in school, placating his parents just enough to keep them from declaring that he has gone too far and must give up his birds, etc.

He’s fascinated by the pigeons, until he starts raising canaries and discovers that they are even more wondrous. He studies them, he watches them for hours every day, he sketches them, he makes models of them and how they fly.

He also transforms himself as much as he can in a birdlike direction. He loses an alarming amount of weight, he starts walking and moving in more of a birdlike fashion, he does hours of exercises a day building up his arm muscles in the hopes of one day being able to fly.

But it really gets to an intriguing, and I suppose scary, extreme when he starts dreaming about being a canary and interacting as a canary with his other canaries. It reaches a point where the dreams are more or less a coherent story that continues night after night—like each night is a chapter in a book.

The dreams soon feel more real to him than his waking life. His waking life becomes like a dream—a bunch of unconnected events that he’s not emotionally invested in and that he forgets almost immediately after they happen—while his dreams become more like life. They are emotionally powerful, and he remembers them in great detail. He falls in love with another canary, he fathers canary children, he learns to communicate with the canaries, he flies, etc.

It’s all so real and so powerful that he even becomes less interested in trying to fly in his waking life. Why bother? He’s already flying in the part of his life that has become more real to him.

Even his connection with Al—for the most part his only significant connection with another human being—fades significantly as he gets more and more lost in his dream world. They don’t have a falling out or anything; it’s just that by now Al is having a “regular” life and pursuing “regular” things, while Birdy is more peculiar and more mentally ill than ever, so they see each other a lot less and no longer have the kind of adventures together they used to have.

If you’re not really interested in birds yourself as a reader, then you’ll need to at least be tolerant of a massive amount of material about birds. Because really that’s what 90% of the parts of the book written from Birdy’s perspective are. That’s almost all he thinks about, so that’s almost all he tells about. It’s like whaling in Moby Dick. There’s page after page after page about the mating habits of canaries, the different functions of different kinds of feathers on pigeons, how you can trick canaries into hatching their eggs all at once (and why you’d want to), and so on.

I don’t care about such things more than a little, but at a certain level it’s kind of cool being taken inside an obsession in this way. Kids especially I think can be prone to really getting caught up in something like this, such that if they aren’t prevented from doing so they will spend almost every waking moment on it. Obviously it’s almost never to the extent chronicled in Birdy, and given that their attention spans tend to be even shorter than those of adults, it’s usually for only days or weeks at most until they’re on to something else, but there can be a real intensity to it while it lasts.

I remember when I studied Sudbury schools and visited several—these are the schools that are really closer to unschooling, where the kids basically spend their time as they choose as long as they don’t violate any rules—that was one of the points they emphasized, that if a kid really gets into something in a big way, they can totally devote themselves to it. It won’t just be one project in one class or something, but they really can spend one entire school day after another on it if they choose.

So if Birdy were at a Sudbury school, he could obsess about birds and spend his time exclusively on birds for as long as he wanted.

I also think about Birdy in connection with recent debates about sex and gender. It has become pretty close to dogma on the left that a person who sees herself as female, wants to be female, is far more interested in things conventionally associated with females than things conventionally associated with males, etc., really is female, at least in the gender sense even if she isn’t female in the sex sense (i.e., genitalia, chromosomes, etc.). And furthermore that gender is the more important sense than sex in terms of what pronoun to use, what bathroom to use, etc.

So transgendered people are male or female (or both or neither) depending on what they declare themselves to be, what they think of themselves as, regardless of any physical facts about them.

So does that mean that it would be inappropriate to say that Birdy “imagines he is a bird,” “wishes he were a bird,” “fantasizes about being a bird,” “acts like a bird,” “thinks of himself as a bird,” etc.? Must we say instead simply that Birdy is a bird?

I would think not, but then again I’m not yet convinced by the “you’re whatever gender you declare yourself to be” rule either.

Another thing I wanted to make sure to mention is that when we finally learn late in the book what Al experienced that so damaged him physically and emotionally, it is among the most harrowing accounts of combat I have ever read.

I wondered while reading Birdy if any of it might be autobiographical. I mean, either Wharton did an extraordinary amount of research about birds (assuming it’s not all a bluff and the information isn’t even accurate, which I seriously doubt), or he already knew most or all of that stuff because of a pre-existing interest in birds. Or not just an interest, since that would be insufficient, but an obsession. Had he experienced from the inside what it was like to be Birdy?

So I read a bit online about the book and the author, and it turns out Wharton did draw on his own experiences to a great extent. He saw combat in World War II and was seriously wounded. He worked in the psych ward of a military hospital. Most notably, he had a major fascination with birds in childhood, even rigging up a system in his bedroom much like Birdy did where he lifted his bed way off the ground and installed big bird cages for canaries under it. (This provoked vociferous objections from his mother, as Birdy’s reconfiguration of his room provoked vociferous objections from his mother.)

Birdy is a well written and intriguing account of a particularly peculiar mental illness from the inside. It’s also much more, including a meditation on friendship, a horrific and realistic account of combat, and a description of what it’s like to transition from the hobbies, joys, and terrors of childhood to the darkest corners of the adult world for which one is least well prepared.

Highly recommended. The movie’s terrific too.

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