Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Suder’s twin obsessions with birds and jazz come together in the person of saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. As a musician, Parker epitomizes the power of art to transcend the earthbound self and the everyday world. Like a bird in flight, Parker in performance soared above the cares of his world on the wings of jazz.

In youth and adulthood, Craig Suder had the same impulse. As a child, he collected the dead sparrows that his brother Martin shot with a BB rifle. He says that he “imagined the lives of those birds passing up through the box spring and the mattress and into me.” When Bud Powell introduces Craig to Parker’s composition “Ornithology,” the boy’s attraction to the freedom of birds merges with the freedom of jazz improvisation. Powell argues, “Jazz is one step beyond, one giant step.” Besides the obvious bird reference in its title, “Ornithology” draws its basic chord progression from the earlier pop standard “How High the Moon.” Thus, the work derives its inspiration from the desire to reach beyond one’s grasp; it is the musical embodiment of the spirit of aspiration.

This same desire transforms Suder into a modern-day Daedalus. Unlike his unfortunate son Icarus, Daedalus successfully escaped his problems on the island of Crete by fashioning his own pair of wings and flying to the sanctuary of Sicily. Like his mythological role model, Suder masters the air currents and flies.

The fact that he flies with an erection calls attention to another major image pattern in the novel, a concern about male potency. At the very beginning of the book, Suder’s problems with his batting performance affect his success in the bedroom. A linkage between baseball bat and male phallus is made. In Craig’s youth, his mother also makes...

(The entire section is 733 words.)