In Extremis


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,…

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