(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

After a rambling autobiographical prologue relating the quasi-historical backgrounds of some of the characters, Jailbird presents the memoir of one Walter F. Starbuck, recently released from jail after serving time for a minor role in the Watergate conspiracy. The novel relates the events of Starbuck’s first two days of freedom, during which he goes to New York City and encounters two people from his past: Leland Clewes, whom he accidentally ruined in the 1940’s by testifying that Clewes was a former Communist, and Mary Kathleen O’Looney, now a bag lady but formerly his lover and coworker during his own days as a Communist in the 1930’s. Starbuck’s narrative is full of flashbacks, and by the time he encounters Clewes and Mary Kathleen, he has related his entire history in a somewhat jumbled fashion.

Starbuck, the son of European immigrants, is sent to Harvard by Alexander Hamilton McCone, his parents’ employer and a stammering recluse. McCone has avoided the world ever since he witnessed the massacre of his father’s striking factory employees. McCone wants Starbuck to become a gentleman, but, instead, as a college student Starbuck becomes a union sympathizer, the editor of The Bay State Progressive, and the lover of Mary Kathleen O’Looney. In the 1940’s, Starbuck gives up his radical affiliations to begin working in a series of bureaucratic government positions. In 1949, he tells a congressional committee, in reply to a...

(The entire section is 559 words.)