The Spectator Bird
The Spectator Bird is a powerful, important work. Because of its themes of aging and identity, it is destined to become even more influential as we move further into this century.
Wallace Stegner’s previous novel, Angle of Repose, earned a Pulitzer Prize. He has written some twenty other books, including an influential conservationist, nonfiction work, The Sound of Mountain Water. He is perhaps best known still for his monumental novel of an American family and its dreams, The Big Rock Candy Mountain, or for his accurate depiction of love’s pain in the novel, All the Little Live Things. Whether in fiction or nonfiction, Stegner has consistently demonstrated craftsmanlike ability to carry large concerns, tell large and difficult stories, make cogent observations on a wide range of life experiences. His importance lies not only in his energetic and unrelenting investigation of human motives and actions, but also in his considerable talent at arresting readers’ attentions and telling them spellbinding tales about themselves and their neighbors.
Stegner has never retreated from a tough subject; instead, he has confronted, head-on, the two most difficult decades for fiction writers to grasp in this century. In the 1960’s, which many writers found it expedient to slip away from into writing about the past, or biography, or mysticism-fantasy-occultism-escape, he lowered his lance and charged. What he charged, of course, was the tragically distorted emotional landscape of mid-Vietnam War America. The topics were frighteningly complex: the dissolution of the family, accelerating erosion of marital bonds, meaningless sexual permissiveness, political, social, educational and religious chaos, the dying environment. All these he treated, and he worked, too, on a pet theme, the angry, apocalyptic differences between young and old, black and white, people. There was no escape into the nostalgia of the Depression years for Stegner. The problems of the day were his meat. Some of his conclusions were not modish or popular for the acid-rock, guru-haunted, “it-it-feels-good-do-it” mentality of that period. But Stegner was not blindly attacking the times or youth. In many ways, he stood alone in his equilibrium, excoriating alike the silly balloons of mindlessly, desperately “with-it” kids and the repressions longed for by the angrily confused, hurt “over 30’s” and “senior citizens.” Inexorably, he made those who would read him, young or old, look at how stupid and vain, cruel and wasteful we were being, and his novels offered some leanly won, old-fashioned humanistic remedies for the problems. He depicted characters as having to learn first of tolerance, then of acceptance, then of respect, then, if possible, of love and faith. Along the way, he suggested, it would not hurt to return to and improve upon the out-of-favor skills of listening and of helping, doing both with some modicum of courtesy and empathy. Stegner’s novels have all been pleas for good sense, modulation, union. His gift, however, is that he deals creatively with the immediate, the important. He converts reality into art by emphasizing and crafting the drama of life itself mainly through strict adherence to accuracy of observation and thoughtful depiction of the natural drama of human problems.
The protagonist in The Spectator Bird is one of Stegner’s most compelling characters. Joe Allston, a seventy-year-old former literary agent, is not enjoying his well-off California retirement. In what his society considers a kind of twilight Eden, Joe and his wife, Ruth, live supposedly quiet, comfortable lives. But Joe is not quiet or comfortable. He rails and rages at television, students, land developers, writers, everything—including himself, and even at times his patient wife. Joe is intelligent and articulate, has enough insight to make himself convolutedly more miserable when he realizes he is indulging in self-pity. He knows it, but finds himself powerless to achieve another form of resistance to two foes his retirement makes it impossible any longer to avoid: his lack of identity, and his painfully advancing age.
Joe estimates himself to be a nonperson. He feels he has no foundations. He never knew his father. He goads himself with sparse memories only of the embarrassment his Danish immigrant mother caused him:Everything in the New World that she tied her hopes to, including me, gave way. I spent my childhood and youth being ashamed of her accent, her clumsiness, her squarehead name, her menial jobs. It used to shrivel me to put down, in the space marked Mother’s Maiden Name, Ingeborg Heegaard. I never discovered until she was dead that she was a saint, and that realization, with all the self-loathing that came with it, put me into a tailspin. . . .
Joe is thus emotionally cut off from his past. Additionally, he tortures himself with memories of his failure as a father to his own child. He comes back again and again to the scars of two decades before when he thinks of his only son:. . . Curtis, who had been nothing but anguish from the time he was breech-born, fell from or let go of his surfboard on the beach at La Jolla. He died an over-age beach bum, evading to the last any obligation to become what his mother and I tried to make or help him be, and like my mother’s, his death lay down accusingly at my door. He was my only descendant, as she was my only ancestor, and I failed both.
So, Joe is equally bereft of roots or any extension into the future. Moreover, Joe realizes that he has had no control whatever over these events, or any others, in his life. Powerless, it seems to him, except to make tragic mistakes, he has drifted in a current, “. . . gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year.” Even the surface good fortune of an employment which has provided materially well, he now knows required no talent. It was all luck and he feels guilt for that. Indeed, he feels tainted to have lived off the talents of others.
All this painful introspection is compounded again and again by his growing consciousness of age. Joe will forget himself a moment, sitting, talking, then stand—thirty years younger in his mind—only to be arthritically, brutally reminded of his irreversibly deteriorating joints. And the pills his doctor prescribes do not deal with his real pain. Joe is frightened and disgusted, too, by the increasing frequency of the deaths of friends. He sees himself surrounded by decay, death, disease. And he is angry, does “not go gentle.” He cannot accept the approaching end of things with the calm and—to him—clichéd sweetness which his wife seems to possess. Joe has found life empty; now he finds the end of it equally devoid of any affirmative point. His only solace is his own sardonic, wise-cracking, kid-it-before-it-kills-you stance. Unfortunately, his wife and friends are even further alienated by this mechanism, and Joe is caught in an untenable position he has no choice but to occupy. Even when he contemplates suicide, he mocks himself: “I have put away a bottle of pills, as who hasn’t, but nobody can guarantee that when the time comes he will have the wit to take them, or even remember where he hid them.” This, suggests Stegner, is modern man, either cut off from basic realities, or fearful of them, afloat, alone in an ever faster-moving sea, a tide bumping and cluttered with detritus which was supposed to make...
(The entire section is 3103 words.)