(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In the universe created by human dreams, an entire world can be designed and inhabited. In some cases, the obsessive nature of the dream/fantasy can become the base out of which a fiction can be made. In William Wharton’s carefully structured first novel, one is introduced to the magical mind of “Birdy,” a character whose fantasies become the stuff of his actual life. Although one only meets Birdy through the eyes of his best friend, Al—a tough Sicilian kid who, like Birdy, grows up in a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood before World War II—the long, detailed flashback sequences present enough material so that Birdy becomes as real as the memories that evoke his image.

Birdy is first met when his friend Al, a wounded soldier recently returned home at the end of the war, is called to the psychiatric ward of an army hospital. Al is asked to try and get his friend Birdy, also a veteran, to emerge from what seems to be a psychotic state of mind: an obsessive way of acting like a bird that has confounded Birdy’s psychiatrist. It appears that Birdy has retreated into a world known only to himself. Al sees Birdy clad in thin, white hospital pajamas, squatting birdlike in the middle of his cell. He does not speak to Al; in fact, he shows no sign of recognition. “The way he squats,” Al states, “you’d think maybe he just might spring up, flap his arms a few times and fly out that window he’s got his eye on.” Al senses that the only way he will be able to open any sort of communication with Birdy is by reminding him of their shared childhood memories. It is at this point in the novel that one is introduced to the mysterious mind of Birdy, one developed out of a loving fascination with all types of birds.

The long, detailed passages following the initial encounter with Birdy alternate between Al’s own memories of Birdy’s youth and equally long narratives written from Birdy’s point of view. Thus the past is reconstructed, tracing Birdy’s fascination with the flight patterns of birds from the late 1930’s when Birdy, at thirteen, first becomes entranced by pigeons, until that point in the present when Birdy’s birdlike identity results in his incarceration in the hospital.

Almost all of the novel’s action takes place in the Philadelphia neighborhood where Al and Birdy grow up. Birdy is the product of parents defeated by the circumstances of their birth and their near-poverty. Known by his parents only as a kind of strange presence inhabiting an upstairs bedroom, Birdy is unloved. Al, too, is a child of the working class, with a violent Sicilian father who works as a plumber and is given to fits of hysteria when provoked by Al. Both sets of parents ignore their sons and, quite naturally, the two boys turn to each other for the comfort and security missed at home. Birdy’s mother, “a first class bitch,” according to Al, extends her hateful feelings to anyone in the neighborhood who attempts to intrude on her privacy. She, as Al notes, has been secreting away all of the baseballs knocked into her backyard from the baseball games played in an adjacent field. While the novel’s narrative is centered around the boys’ attitudes, the reader’s attention is also drawn to the secondary characters’ influence on Al and Birdy, as both boys rebel against the constraints placed on them by their parents and the harsh atmosphere of the parochial school system.

Birdy’s maturation begins when he decides to raise canaries and learns, through the experience, that he can live a life outside of his environment. As he becomes devoted to the birds, Birdy begins to imagine the world in which his birds exist. He devises a grand fantasy about his favorite bird, Perta. He loves her softness, and, in the striking passages where he attempts to understand his feelings, he...

(The entire section is 1563 words.)