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In Extremis

Birdy

by William Wharton
Knopf, 310 pp., $8.95

The Cement Garden

by Ian McEwan
Simon and Schuster, 153 pp., $8.95

Probably no fictional subject is truly exhaustible. The writers of these impressive first novels have both taken the time-honored (if not time-worn) material of adolescent maladjustment and pushed it—pushed it far beyond the experience or even the most vagrant fantasies of an endearingly troubled Holden Caulfield. Both novels are truly fictional, made objects rather than disguised case histories, and they both display a loving precision in their documentation of the extreme.

Birdy is a novel of obsession, of a monomania as exclusive (though hardly as titanic!) as Ahab’s pursuit of the white whale. We first see the character known only as “Birdy” through the eyes of his old friend Al, a wounded soldier who, at the end of the Second World War, has been brought to the psychiatric ward of an army hospital in an effort to recall Birdy from the madness in which he has taken refuge. He finds Birdy, clad in thin, white hospital pajamas, squatting in the middle of the floor of his cell—his “cage.”

He’s…flat on his feet with his knees together, his head thrust forward, his arms against his sides, his fingers hooked behind him. The way he squats, you’d think maybe he just might spring up, flap his arms a few times and fly out that window he’s got his eye on.

Al—a gentle-tough, burly, earthbound Sicilian-American—attempts to communicate with Birdy, reminding him of episodes from their shared past, which Al then expands into a series of extended flash-back memories; these alternate with increasingly long passages written from Birdy’s own point of view. Together they trace the development of Birdy’s preoccupation with flight and with birds from the late 1930s, when Birdy, at thirteen, still fancied pigeons, to the present (1945), when his ornithological identity seems tragically complete.

Except for the hospital scenes—and the battle scenes near the end—the action takes place in a working-class, largely Catholic suburb of Philadelphia, where Birdy’s defeated and passive father works as a janitor and Al’s brutally violent father as a plumber. Birdy’s mother is “a first-class bitch” whose attitude toward her son is coldly denigrating and who keeps an enormous cache of baseballs that have been knocked into her yard from an adjoining ball park. 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.

When Birdy’s pigeon-phase ends with a fall (flight?) from a high gas tank that lands him in a hospital, gains him his nickname, and causes his parents to destroy the pigeon-loft, the boy turns to canaries, a far more challenging and subtle species. The first canary that he acquires is a female whom he names Birdie and describes in these terms:

She’s yellow, the yellow of a lemon. Her tail feathers and wing tips are lighter, almost white…. Her legs are orange-pink, lighter than pigeon legs, delicately thin. She has three toes forward and one back like all tree birds, and her nails are long and thin, translucent, with a fine vein down the center. She’s medium-sized for a canary and has a rounded, very feminine head; her eyes are bright black, her beak exactly the color of her legs.

Three pages later he tells us, “I’m really in love with Birdie now. She’s so dainty, so quick, so skilled.” Whereas most fanciers breed canaries for song or for color, Birdy, in the grip of his own aspirations, breeds them for flight. As his aviary expands, first in his bedroom and then in his backyard, the boy accumulates (as does the reader) an enormous amount of lore about the feeding, singing, and breeding behavior of canaries and about the physiology and aerodynamics of bird-flight. Every night Birdy becomes absorbed by a dream in which he speaks with his canaries, sings to them, flies with them, and even mates with a female called Perta—awaking to find that he has ejaculated. More and more the dream takes over:

When the nest is finished, Perta tells me she thinks she is going to lay the egg that night. For me as boy, the dream nights are the day. In the real day the thinking of the dream dominates me. I’m thinking all the time of our egg to come….

That night the egg is laid. I sit beside Perta. She tells me she can feel the egg becoming inside her, how the shell is hardening and starting to move out into the world.

She asks me to sing to her so the egg will come more easily….

Isolated in real life from all but his faithful, uncomprehending friend Al, Birdy in his bird-life undergoes pubescence, maturation, and fatherhood, experiences ecstasy, danger, and loss. When at last the canaries are gone, Birdy, like Al, enters the army.

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 burden-some—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 (“Ah, come on, Birdy. Get off it, huh? This is Al here. Let’s cut this shit!”). 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.

The Cement Garden, by contrast, seems entirely professional in its execution, the work of a young man whose private demons, however unruly, have been successfully harnessed to a career. Ian McEwan won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1976 with First Love, Last Rites, possibly the most brilliantly perverse and sinister batch of short stories to come out of England since Angus Wilson’s The Wrong Set thirty years ago. Unlike Wilson, McEwan is not concerned with the teeth-baring of vicious little snobberies in an exhausted, class-ridden society; the England of his fiction is beyond all that—a flat, rubble-strewn wasteland, populated by freaks and reclusive monsters, most of them articulate enough to tell their own stories with mesmerizing narrative power and an unfaltering instinct for the perfect sickening detail. Dirt, scum, pus, menstrual blood, pathetic obesity, total chinlessness, enforced transvestitism, early teenage incest, child abuse and child murder—such is the mixture with which McEwan baits his stories. With the exception of one piece (“Solid Geometry”), they are not really classifiable as examples of latter-day gothic; if nightmares, they are well-lit, waking nightmares, for there is nothing imprecise about them, no dislocations of time and space, no lapses in causality.

Much of the coloration and some of the preoccupations of First Love, Last Rites are to be found in the new novel. Told by a fifteen-year-old boy named Jack, The Cement Garden is the story of the isolation and pitiful regression of the narrator, his two adolescent sisters (Julie and Sue), and their little brother (Tom), who is six. At the beginning they live with their parents in the only house left standing in what had once been a whole streetful of houses. “Now it stood on empty land where stinging nettles grew round torn corrugated tin. The other houses were knocked down for a motorway they never built.” Beyond stand four twenty-story tower blocks “on wide aprons of cracked asphalt where weeds were pushing through…. All down their concrete sides were colossal stains, almost black, caused by the rain.”

The parents have no friends; no one ever comes to visit. Friendless themselves, the adolescents play giggling sexual games together. After the father—a gruff, unloving man—has suffered his first heart attack, he orders fifteen bags of cement with which he plans to cover the eccentric garden that he can no longer properly tend; before he can get very far, he dies of another heart attack while Jack, who has been helping him with the cement, masturbates in the bathroom upstairs. Not long afterward the ailing, shadowy mother withdraws permanently to her bed, and life in the household becomes subdued, muted. When little Tom is bullied at school, he wishes he could become a girl, because “you don’t get hit when you are a girl.” Meanwhile Jack, who has developed a very bad case of pimples, stops bathing and no longer changes his clothes, combs his hair, or cleans his fingernails.

Then, at the end of the school term, during a spell of intensely hot weather, the mother dies, and the children, experiencing an eerie mixture of loss, freedom, and apathy, decide to tell no one but to place the body in a tin trunk in the cellar and cover it with concrete. The concrete is badly mixed, a crack develops, grows, a smell begins to permeate the house—and life goes on. The children cling to each other, literally, as a soft depression settles over the household. While Jack masturbates, as if to maintain, through repeated sensation, a grip on his sinking existence, the girls dress and bewig Tom as a little girl; later he regresses still further to thumbsucking babyhood. The milkman comes no more; the garbage remains uncollected; and when Julie’s bloke, a nosy snooker-player named Derek, attempts to become part of the scene, he finds the family combined (in a most graphically physical way) to exclude him.

The Cement Garden is in many ways a shocking book, morbid, full of repellent imagery—and irresistibly readable. It is also the work of a writer in full control of his materials. As in the short stories, the effect achieved by McEwan’s quiet, precise, and sensuous touch is that of magic realism—a transfiguration of the ordinary that has a far stronger retinal and visceral impact than the flabby surrealism of so many “experimental” novels. The setting and events reinforce one another symbolically, but the symbolism never seems contrived or obtrusive. Along with his narrative and descriptive powers, McEwan possesses what seems to me a remarkable imaginative insight into the psychology of children who have never experienced a fully loving adult presence and are now set free from even a vestige of adult control. Though their collective pathology and deprivation are indeed extreme, the four children are made to seem entirely credible—in their avoidances as well as in their speech and overt behavior. Nor have sympathy and implicit pity been withheld.

It will be interesting to see what this gifted craftsman can do if his demons ever allow him to extend his range—to include, occasionally, a functioning adult or an unmaimed child. Presumably McEwan writes as he must—and his readers, however they respond to his subject matter, can be thankful that he writes so memorably and well.

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