The Wild Birds

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Although this is Wendell Berry’s first collection of short stories, he has previously published novels which also center on the small towns of Port William and Hargrave, Kentucky, and their inhabitants. Moreover, he has published several collections of essays which focus on many of the same themes explored in his fiction: individual responsibility, family connections, love of the land, and the importance of community. In both his insistence on communal values and in his creation of a self-contained and localized fictional world, the writer he most resembles is William Faulkner, and the reader will hear echoes of Faulkner’s themes and style in this collection.

The central character in The Wild Birds is Wheeler Catlett, and the opening of the first story, “Thicker than Liquor,” has Wheeler, a recent law-school graduate setting up practice in Hargrave, a small Kentucky county seat, thinking of his future. Indeed, the entire collection does chart his future, beginning when he is thirty and ending when he is sixty-seven, as he thinks about his past and the past of the town itself. “Thicker than Liquor” deals with the responsibility of blood relations for one another, a common theme throughout the book. Uncle Peach, Wheeler’s mother’s unmarried brother, is a drunk (for people in small-town Kentucky do not dignify people such as Peach with the name “alcoholic”), who presents Wheeler with the first demand on his sense of responsibility. Uncle Peach, the black sheep of the family, a duty and a care Wheeler has inherited from his mother, must be picked up in Louisville and taken home because he is “sick,” a Southern euphemism for being drunk.

In addition to focusing on responsibility, however, the story is about the contrast between Peach and Wheeler, who, as a child, expressed the desire to be like his uncle. Moreover, it is about the nature of living in events that are destined to become stories, for Wheeler, as he struggles to get Peach home, thinks that the story in which he is involved would be a good one if he were free of it and able to tell it to his wife. The tale ends in a timeless moment in Peach’s house as he goes to sleep with Wheeler’s hand on his shoulder. Such timeless moments as this are common in these stories, which often conclude in epiphanies or revelations.

“Where Did They Go?” is the second story in the collection, and it focuses on the sexual initiation of Andy Catlett, Wheeler’s thirteen-year-old son. Indirectly, however, it is also about Wheeler himself, for his sons often stand in as proxy for him, his delegates, Andy says, to the world of the possible rather than the actual. Wheeler often begins the day making plans for the boys for activities which he would do had he not the responsibilities of his office work. Andy says that he can remember vividly many hunting and fishing jaunts that Wheeler imagined for them but that no one ever made—a testimony to the power of Wheeler’s imaginative life and his desire for the possible, both of which are themes that frequently crop up in these stories.

Not only does Andy serve as proxy to Wheeler, but he also learns about sexuality by proxy: First he hears about sex from an older hired hand who had been to Paris during World War I and who tells Andy about a couples dance he calls “jigjig.” The climactic sexual encounter of the story does not involve Andy directly but, rather, the daughter of the sharecropper for whom he is working and her brother-in-law, appropriately nicknamed Noah Count, a handsome but shiftless charmer whom Andy envies for his smooth talk and easy ways with women. At the moment Andy hears the sexual invitation pass between the two, he knows that something powerful has happened, something strange and as if from another world. When the couple disappear and Andy knows that they have gone off to jigjig, the answer to the question which the title of the story poses is that they have gone beyond anywhere anyone knew. Berry again ends his story with a timeless moment of epiphany, as Andy comes to a mysterious and unarticulated realization about the nature of sexuality.

In the third story, “It Wasn’t Me,” Wheeler is in his early fifties and must once again deal with his responsibility to another, this time to a dead former client, Jack Beechum, who wrote his intention in an old notebook found in his bib overalls that a young couple of sharecroppers, Elton and Mary Penn, should have his farm at a price of two hundred dollars an acre. For Wheeler, the scrap of paper is even more binding than the will itself, and he, a man who lives in a world he assumes is ruled by instinctive honesty, is astonished that Jack Beechum’s daughter will...

(The entire section is 1925 words.)

The Wild Birds Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXII, March 1, 1986, p. 943.

Christian Science Monitor. LXXVIII, July 10, 1986, p. 1.

Commonweal. CXIII, June 6, 1986, p. 345.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, February 1, 1986, p. 139.

Library Journal. CXI, February 15, 1986, p. 192.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 27, 1986, p. 6.

The Nation. CCXLII, May 3, 1986, p. 626.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, April 13, 1986, p. 22.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, January 31, 1986, p. 364.