Wharton, William (Pseudonym) 1925–
Wharton is the pseudonym of an American novelist whose first book Birdy is an idiosyncratic fantasy about a young man's obsessive desire to become a bird. A professional painter who lives in France, Wharton has chosen to conceal his identity for "personal privacy." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96.)
Apart from its very skillful management of a difficult, complex narrative strategy, "Birdy" works, is a success, chiefly because of the touching, believable ties between [Birdy and Al,] the two temperamentally distinct lower middle-class boys, and because Birdy's crazy fantasies about the bright, darting and melodious careers of canaries are grounded in [William Wharton's] impressive knowledge of and love for this domesticated species.
Even so, there are moments when many readers will feel they are being told more about canaries than anyone except a famished alley cat would want to know….
Comparisons with Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" are inevitable. I should say "Birdy" is more pastoral, less disfigured by misogyny, less witty and more poetical altogether. Perhaps it will become a cult book for the disaffected young. That will do no harm, for its view of life at bottom is fresh, innocent and romantic. (p. 30)
Julian Moynahan, "Crazy to Fly," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 21, 1979, pp. 8, 30.
As a literary subject madness is a well-known invitation to melodrama and sentimentality. [In Birdy, however, William Wharton] has managed to present Birdy's unique obsession in an entirely matter-of-fact way, neither glamorizing nor belittling his lonely, affectionate, intelligent hero. The prosaism has its problems: Most readers will want to know much less about canaries than they read here, and the pedestrian language of both Birdy and Al, while convincingly realistic, is too limited to bear the weight of emotion that is placed upon it. But it puts us on Birdy's side as he tries to balance his inner and outer lives…. In spite of an overly literal style of narration and a false resolution at the end, this unusual first novel is well worth reading. (pp. 43-4)
Katha Pollitt, "Books in Brief: 'Birdy'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 6, No. 3, February 3, 1979, pp. 43-4.
[Birdy] is so accomplished in style, so assured of its grip on the reader, that one can easily doubt whether it really is a first novel. William Wharton is a graceful yet powerful storyteller who makes us believe even when we resist. He forces us to use our imaginations and convinces us of his characters' ability to overcome their infirmities yet revel in their eccentricities. (p. 40)
Wharton has infused his story of boyhood escape with the harshest of realities. There is harrowing, graphic violence in the descriptions of battle and of the destruction of stray dogs witnessed by the boys while they are employed as dogcatchers one summer, and there is hatred (and much damage) perpetrated by Birdy's mother and Al's father. Almost by definition, first novels contain hesitancies, an unsureness when it comes to fully engaging the imagination. Birdy is extraordinary because it lacks any tentativeness; it grabs and holds as its heroes grapple with life and flight. (pp. 40-1)
Robert R. Harris, "Brief Review: 'Birdy'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 180, No. 6, February 10, 1979, pp. 40-1.
Birdy is a novel of obsession, of a monomania as exclusive (though hardly as titanic!) as Ahab's pursuit of the white whale….
While the novel centers upon Birdy's obsession, its scope is broad enough to include a number of episodes that collectively present a more generalized (but still vivid) account of what it would have been like to grow up in such a setting at such a time….
Birdy contains many passages of almost incandescent beauty, passages where exact observation, combined with an exalted state of feeling, finds expression on what might be called a visionary level. But I must admit that eventually I began to read them with more admiration than pleasure. The central fantasy impresses me as being excessively detailed and repetitious, "overdetermined" in the Freudian sense. The canary-lore finally becomes too burdensome—it's as though the famous chapter of cetology in Moby-Dick had been expanded to occupy two-thirds of the novel. I think, too, that the sections dealing with Al are relative failures, especially the very derivative battle scenes—right out of a sentimental World War II movie—in which Al discovers the cowardice at the root of his tough-guy stance, a discovery that is meant to make him as "human" and vulnerable as Birdy; in keeping with the characterization of Al, much of the dialogue given him is oversimplified and painfully corny…. The fact that Wharton relies so heavily upon Al as a symbolic foil to Birdy weakens the ending of the novel, making it seem too schematic and preachy.
There is a hint of amateurishness in Birdy—sometimes inspired, sometimes not. The obsessive vision that propels and sustains Birdy on his long flight has a once-in-a-lifetime quality about it, a quirkiness that does not augur well for a successor. I hope that my hunch is wrong, for the talent and energy displayed in Birdy sufficiently outweigh its crudities to make one wish for another book from the same pseudonymous source.
Robert Towers, "In Extremis," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1979 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVI, No. 3, March 8, 1979, p. 8.∗
Wharton summons up with extraordinary immediacy and professionalism [in Birdy] the mechanics of pigeon and canary breeding, and the physical details of illicit excursions to pools and gasometers where the deluded Birdy is training himself to fly. The narrative has an obsessed brilliance that always hovers on the brink of the absurd, and tips right into it when Birdy begins to dream that he's a canary called Alfonso dreaming he is mating with Perta, an exceptionally desirable female canary: "I have had no babies…. I would like to be your female but you should know this", she explains, rather like Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls. Despite the excesses and the too-pat ending (victory of eternal, natural, barefoot, American boy against army, parents, analysts) William Wharton's splendidly eccentric vision is a triumphant oddity.
Eric Korn, "Catching Up: 'Birdy'," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1979; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4003, December 7, 1979, p. 104.
Every now and then a book comes along that is sharply original and unmistakably itself, while at the same time it fits easily into one's reading experience. Birdy … is such a book. Its distinctly idiosyncratic characters, Al and Birdy, are quickly assimilated into a family of book relatives: Huck and Tom, then Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, then Queequeg and Ishmael, Crane's Henry Flemmming, and Holden Caulfield….
In nineteen alternating but not antiphonal chapters, their two voices tell a double love story and develop a counterpoint which, as in a Bach fugue, enriches each voice and makes the value of the two far greater than their sum….
[When] Al tries to explain legs,...
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