Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 901
This short novel follows two narrative threads: baseball player Craig Suder’s quixotic adult adventures and his childhood memories. Each contemporary moment is informed by some action in the past; chapters shift from one narrative line to the other.
The first story line begins with a strikeout, but Craig Suder’s problems in batting are only the beginning of his worries. His poor performance on the field is letting down his team and embarrassing his son; his poor performance in bed is driving his wife Thelma to her exercycle and perhaps to another man. After he is conveniently put on the disabled list, not for any physical injury but for his supposed jinx on the team, Craig uses his long leave of absence to examine his life. He does not like what he sees. Only with his discovery of what he assumes is Thelma’s infidelity does he decide to abandon his responsibilities. He leaves, taking only his baseball bat, saxophone, record player, and a recording of Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.”
Herein begins a series of episodic, seriocomic experiences. First, Craig asks Sid Willis if he can stay on Willis’s boat. During his short sojourn with the renegade Willis, Suder becomes the unknowing accomplice to a drug-smuggling scheme. Unhappy with his implication in criminal activities and wary of Willis’s offer to do him a favor by ending his “miserable, pathetic life,” Suder pushes Willis and the drugs overboard. He then adds a suitcase full of money to his list of movable property.
Willis’s paraphrase of Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel’s theory that “you need a dash of illogicalness to make your life complete” seems to apply to much of Suder’s life. After his adventure at sea, he lands in Portland, Oregon, where he rents a room in a boardinghouse in the Chinese district, unaware that its residents are gay. He also unwittingly inspires the affection of Fat Thomas, who helps him escape from Willis, who has followed Craig to the city. Taking Thomas’s station wagon, Suder heads for manager Lou Tyler’s cabin in the Cascade mountain range. Along the way, he acquires an elephant by making a wager at a suburban shopping mall. Once in the mountains, he takes in a nine-year-old runaway white girl named Jincy Jessy Jackson.
Up to this point, Suder’s saxophone has replaced his baseball bat as his principal mode of self-expression, but because the sax hurts Jincy’s ears and makes Renoir, the elephant, bellow, Suder turns to a new outlet: self-propelled flight. Long interested in birds and their assumed freedom from earthly responsibility, Suder announces his intention of flying by his own power off the edge of Willet Rock, more than two thousand feet above the surface of Ezra Pond. In preparation, he tries to become more like a bird, catching a fever to raise his body temperature, doing exercises to become more flexible, and, on one occasion, eating a worm. As the book ends, a bewinged Suder runs naked from a host of pursuers until he jumps from the rock. After a long dive, he masters the air currents and truly flies.
The second narrative line, tracing Suder’s childhood memories, offers commentary on the main plot and illuminates the character of the protagonist. It begins with Suder’s recollection of when he was ten years old and his father announced to him and his brother Martin, “Boys, your mother is crazy.” This statement turns Suder’s childhood world upside down, making him question himself and his place in the scheme of things. Concerned about his mother’s public instability, Suder begins to wonder if he himself carries the seeds of madness.
His father’s sober presence is a stabilizing factor in his life. He is also comforted by the counsel of Bud Powell, a celebrated jazz pianist who is staying with the Suder family during a hiatus from his musical journeys. Powell interests the boy in jazz and in travel; he talks of going to France, where “people are free.”
In its own way, Powell’s restlessness complements Cathy Suder’s. At one point, when he unties Craig’s pet dog Django (named for jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt), even though it is likely that an irate neighbor will shoot the animal, Powell asserts, “That’s called a chance. Nothing is fair, and nobody knows anything.”
After Suder hits his mother on the head with a china bowl to knock “sense into her,” as his brother had suggested, she takes the event as a revelation from God and plans to join a Bible study group led by a bigoted dentist, Doctor McCoy. “If you fellows believed more strongly in God, maybe you wouldn’t be colored,” McCoy announces to the Suder family at the dinner table. Against her husband’s wishes, Cathy Suder continues to seek McCoy’s company, until he treats her ambition to run around the boundaries of the city as a great joke.
When she is not obsessed with her husband’s imagined infidelity, Cathy Suder wages a campaign to preserve her sons’ chastity. She badgers Martin about his masturbatory activities and catches Craig experimenting with Naomi Watkins.
The second narrative thread ends with both Ben and Cathy Suder successfully running around Fayetteville, to the applause of the city’s black citizens. This event parallels Craig’s flight in the first story line.
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