Birds of America
The title of Mary McCarthy’s new book makes clear that this is an ironical ornithology of certain American species on their contemporary feeding grounds in New England, Paris, and Rome. It is really an education of a young American bird watcher, Peter Levi. He is literally that. From boyhood his lonely, seeking mind is haunted by the lusts of the Great Horned Owl, the ancient knowledge of the cormorant. His talented twice-divorced mother, who is “perfect” in her divorce—no alimony—and who is “too good to be true,” is, for him, a rose-breasted grosbeak; the hard-drinking local Admiral with his horrible curries and his telescope has “the hoarse voice of a sea bird.” Not for nothing is the cormorant dying out. Not for nothing at the end of the book has young Peter Levi, lying in a fever at a Paris hospital, been injured by an angry swan in the Jardin des Plantes. Not for nothing in his delirium does he see his favorite philosopher, Kant, crawling up the coverlet with the news that God is dead—everyone knows that—but that Nature is dead too.
As a bird himself Peter belongs to the tame young American Candide group. Well-educated by elusive academic parents, intelligent, driven by conscience and maxims—Treat no one as a Means; Not to Care is a Sin—without vanity or conceit, trying to make up a virginal mind, Peter has, for the moment, the neutered air of his type. He has a much better brain than Candide had but he suffers from the fact that his bustling elders have gobbled up the store of family passion and vitality for the moment. All their passions have left him with is Reason.
Rosamund, his mother, the grosbeak, has had two Jewish husbands, the first an Italian historian, the second a German physicist. She has separated from them—one never hears what went on—and is seen early on scrupulously trying not to be married to her son. She will find a third partner and become a famous international harpsichord player. An old American story: the boy is left serious but happy in his loneliness, for personal relations have been disinfected. By the time he is nineteen, the youth has an elderly view of his mother. “Her faults pleased him,” but
…he had become cautious about her, not trusting her sweetness and unruffled temper. Besides her faults were no longer unfamiliar. He recognized them in himself. Her zeal to please had set him a bad example. It had made him placatory. Her scruples in him had become irresolution and an endless picking at himself like masturbation—a habit he had not completely outgrown and which seemed to him ignominious, even though she and the babbo [his father, the Italian Jew] had said it was natural in puberty; on that score he felt they had given him a wrong steer. Moreover her good qualities (she was generous to a fault) did not inspire imitation. Rather the contrary…. He admired his father for having the strength of his defects.
Peter “really loved his mother for having the faults of America,” summed up in the word “extravagance.” Puritanism was an extravagance, like Prohibition. Americans, the Babbo said, were logicians with no idea of limit.
So there at Rocky Port, Peter stands “quarantined in history” in a fading New England where his mother is beautifully stirring up trouble because the old foods and recipes are giving place to awful packaged mixes. The old New England is being replaced by the commercially historic for the summer residents. Tradition itself has become a product:
The word tradition was often heard at Rocky Port cocktail parties, usually on the lips of a woman with blue hair or a fat man in Polynesian shorts. The village was protecting its traditions, Peter was repeatedly told, as though Rocky Port were a sanctuary of banded birds, threatened with extirpation. He wondered what had been handed down to these people and what they were safeguarding—except money. There was nothing distinctive about Rocky Port’s way of life, unless it was the frequency of gift shops for selling “gourmet” foods, outsize pepper mills, “amusing aprons” and chef’s costumes, bar equipment and frozen croissants “just like in France”…. Rocky Port was a museum.
All this is Miss McCarthy with the claws just showing and it is very funny, but what will happen to the innocent Peter when he gets abroad? He is wide open to disaster and, in a vulgar way, we hope for it. He is rather English Public Schoolboy, Huxley type, circa 1925. He will have small misadventures, like failing to realize his dream of crossing France on his motor bike and other comedies of youthful slyness, but Miss McCarthy is out for his education. The book is partly a Bildungsroman of the young man who meets the wrong people abroad and who will discover that the modern world is polluted by unsolved questions. Human beings themselves are becoming a kind of mass garbage.
We settle down to one of Miss McCarthy’s sharp-eyed commentaries of travel. Peter asks questions about equality, education, politics, mass society, and so on, and since he is a touching, fidgeting, and exceptional young man, he finds more and more to worry about. We are on his side all the time. When goaded he can burst out at an awful Thanksgiving dinner in Paris—one of the high satirical moments of the book—and he is a wicked listener. (Getting information embarrasses him because it feels like espionage: this is one of Miss McCarthy’s excellent insights into a thoughtful young man’s mind and indeed, throughout, in preserving its elderliness, she has really brought out the half-resentful charm of youth.)
Although it can be said that his scruples ensure him against any danger of chancing his arm, Peter is an extremist in his own way. He has inherited the national obsession with plumbing from his mother and, in Paris hotels, has a comic and philosophical bout of compulsive toilet cleaning. He is certainly not earthy about “night soil”; but he does wonder whether his cleaning up after others isn’t undemocratic, i.e., being cleaner than others. If he is a prig he is an original. There is his care for a Fatsheara, a plant, a species of ivy, which he tries to keep alive in his dark room. It begins to get leggy. The scene that follows might come out of that delightful Victorian conversation piece, Sandford and Merton:
The leaves at the base were falling off one by one, and though he had been carefully irritating the stem at the base to produce a new sideward growth, it had been ignoring this prodding on his part and just getting taller, weed-like, till he finally had the idea of taking it for walks, once or twice a week, depending on the weather…. He thought he was beginning to note signs of gratitude in the invalid for the trouble he was taking…there was a detectable return of chlorophyll, like a green flush to the cheeks of the shut-ins. He spoke to it persuasively—sometimes out loud—urging it to grow. So far, he had resisted giving it a shot of fertilizer, because a mildewed American manual he had acquired on the quais—How to Care For Your House Plants—cautioned against giving fertilizer except to “healthy subjects.” That would be like giving a gourmet dinner to a starving person—the old parable of the talents.
This plant-walking saves him when he runs into a student riot. The thing has grown tall and guarantees his innocence to the bored flics. Naturally he has already got in touch with French bird watchers, most respectably through the Embassy. How odd that regard for embassies strikes a European. Practical, of course.
But the American bird abroad tends to the flaunting species of the turkey. Peter soon runs into it gobbling in its European farmyard. He goes to an awful Thanksgiving dinner given, without the art that conceals art, by a General who would like to swap the war in Vietnam for the real thing. Here the narrative breaks into broad farce. The General’s son—a problem boy who has failed college, can’t get a job: he simply collects parking tickets—has volunteered for Vietnam. His mother drinks his health:
“It was Benjy’s own decision. ‘I’ve got to go, Mom,’ he said. Leonard wanted us to refuse our consent though he’s only Benjy’s step-father. ‘Let him wait till he’s drafted,’ Leonard said. But I couldn’t say ‘No’ to Benjy…. I guess I’ve spoiled him; he’s my only child.” Her face, which might have been pretty when she was young, crinkled and puckered like a wide seersucker bedspread.
Benjy is guzzling pie and ice cream; his “wine-intake had been monitored by his mother.”
It came as a surprise to Peter that contrary to what you would expect in such a milieu, Benjy’s parents were far from being proud of the patriot they had fledged. Even if he came back covered with medals he would not get the fatted calf. To hear his mother tell it, she spent most of her time on her knees praying for peace. “Though Benjy doesn’t like me to do it. He hates it if I go into some little church and light a candle.” “Yeah, I want to get some of those gorillas fast.” “Guerillas, please, Benjy.” She gave the “l’s” a Spanish pronunciation. “He used to think they were real gorillas,” she explained with a little gurgle of a laugh. “He got it from listening to the radio.”
In the same scene there is a vegetarian girl, a heretic at the national feast: Peter rather falls for her and “has a new worry: as an animal lover how can he justify eating meat?” We also get a glimpse of private life in NATO. Peter’s neighbor at the dinner is a leathery lady whose husband has gone off with a German.
“He wants a divorce, but if I give him a divorce, they’ll take away my PX card and my Q.C. privileges. You can smile, Peter, but to me it’s a tragedy…. Civilians don’t dig what it means to us. Chuck and Letitia can entertain lavishly because, because unlike you and me, they don’t buy a thing on the French market. Not even a stick of celery.”
Ordinarily Peter would have felt sorry for this coarse-grained Donna Elvira. Maybe she loved the guy and was ashamed to mention that; it was odd what people were ashamed of, sometimes the best part of themselves.
The Sorbonne, so far as Peter’s fellow Americans are concerned, is a shambles. The University cynically takes the fees, knowing the students will do nothing, but will kid themselves that they are absorbing something or other unconsciously. Peter can’t make up his mind about this. In Rome, which he enjoys more than Paris, he meets a real stinker in the mean figure of Mr. Small. Mr. Small hangs about the galleries and cafés, insinuating himself among the young and getting information about student life and needs. At the right point, he takes down what they say on tape.
He quickly decides Peter is so abnormal that he needs a psychiatrist, but Peter is now in good condition for an argument. He discovers that Mr. Small is doing research for a foundation which has a tie-up with hotels, travel agencies, advertisers, and airlines. The motive? To follow and quietly direct the migration routes of these young birds and to capture and exploit the student traffic. Mass student transport under the direction of mass society, the old Conference trick!
The dreadful question of tourism arises. The Sistine Chapel is full of garbage—human garbage. An art lover cannot see the pictures. People are polluting the planet, because it pays to pollute it. Peter thinks enviously of Milton, who was said to have traveled with a hermit. Doesn’t Mr. Small occasionally get scared, asks Peter, the protector of the human bird sanctuary. Mr. Small replies:
“Scared? I can’t think of a more challenging time to be alive for an American. All the options are open. No society in history before our own has given so-called mass man such opportunities for self realization.” “To me everything is closing in,” Peter argued. “If I were a Russian or a Pole at least I might have the illusion that things would be better if there was a revolution. Or even gradual evolution. But here evolution just means more of the same….”
Peter does adroitly prevent Mr. Small from putting down his lunch to Mr. Small’s expense account. The scrupulous have to rely on a small victory here and there.
One is waiting for Peter to commit at least one rash act. Love has escaped him. While he wavered his vegetarian girl has gone off with a Frenchman and one half-expects the boy to rescue a fallen woman. He does—but she is no more than a reeking female clochard whom he allows to spend a night on the floor of his room. She rewards his charity by stealing his door knob, a clever move in a small-minded way. (Strange that it should puzzle him.)
So we leave this quiet American to be rescued by his immensely successful mother and the dream figure of Kant. He points out to her irritably that he was not bitten by a swan; swans strike, they do not bite. (Not, I believe, true; I was bitten by one when I was eight.) He will return home from studying the American bird abroad to face college and the Army.
Miss McCarthy has really rediscovered an old form of travel commentary in giving Peter her own critical detachment and knowledge; but it doesn’t matter that Peter is too precocious and, like his mother, too good to be true. He is a relief after the showy, self-dramatizing confessionals and sexual loud mouths. A late-developer, he enjoys and profits by the virginity that his learned and irresponsible, rational parents have unwittingly loaded him with. If he is a tame bird, he is very touching in his dignity. He is too absorbed by what he sees to be self-pitying. Goodness knows how he has missed the morbidity of youth—perhaps that is a loss for him and even a mistake on Miss McCarthy’s part, but one is glad to be spared it. He is just the shy young pedant to keep a topical allegory about intellectual pollution from being a bore. In a novel he would be thin, as he is; but in the Euro-American laboratory he is a ready piece of Puritan litmus.