Ironical Aviary

Birds of America

by Mary McCarthy
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 352 pp., $6.95

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 …

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