William (Pseudonym) Wharton Robert Towers - Essay

Robert Towers

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗