Title: The Spectator Bird
Author: Wallace Stegner
Publication Year: 1976
Edition: trade softcover/1990Source: personal collection
Date Completed: 6/2012
Joe Allston is a retired literary agent. Somber and introspective, his wife Ruth describes him as irritable and depressed. The couple moved from New York to California after retirement, but despite the move and new surroundings Joe is still haunted by the sense of guilt he feels ever since his only child died in a surfing accident twenty years earlier.
Joe sees himself as a failure -- as a son to his mother and as a father to his son.......
"I learned to scratch dead leaves over what I didn't want to see."
When a postcard arrives, forwarded from New York to California, from an old friend in Denmark named Astrid, Joe's memories think back to a trip he and his wife took there 20 years earlier as a way of dealing with their grief over the loss of their son. Joe digs his way through old boxes and finds (3) notebooks from their trip in 1954. Joe begins to read the diaries, and is surprised that he could have written some what is contained within. When his wife finds out what he is doing, she insists that he reads the diaries out loud to her. Each night he reads a bit more to his wife, and as he does, Ruth hopes to clear up some questions about that period in time that has been troubling her for years.
So begins Joe's odyssey into the past, back to his earliest beginning with his mother, which explained so much about the man he grew to be.
"Young, middle-aged, or getting old, Joe Allston has always been full of himself. He has always hunted himself in places where he has never been, he has always been trying to thread some needle with a string that was raveled at both ends. He has always been hungry for some continuity and assurance and sense of belonging, but has never had ancestors or descendants or place in the world. Little orphan Joe, what a sad case."
".......I have never needed many people around. I always had more than I wanted. A few friends are enough. There are lots of perfectly pleasant people that I like, but if I don't see them, I don't miss them. What kept me in New York was work, not people. When the work ended, most of the people ended, all but the handful that meant something. Maybe that's alarming, but that's the way I am."
"The sixties are the age of anxiety. You feel yourself on the brink of old age, and you fret. Once you pass your seventieth birthday that all clears away. You are like a man with an old car and and no particular place to go. You drive it where you want to, and everyday it keeps on running is a gift."
The Spectator Bird is really two stories. One story deals with how Joe sees his life. It's about marriage, aging, growing old, internal crisis and regrets about the past. The other story is one that unravels as Joe reads the old diaries to his wife from (20) years earlier.
Stegner's writing is fantastic. Descriptive, the characters finely tuned, leaving the reader with vivid images and lasting impressions There is so much that resonated with me as I read this book. Although, I'm not as old as Joe or retired or in crisis mode, I saw a lot of myself in Joe when I think about my life.
At first I saw his wife Ruth as a bit of a nag, but by the end of the novel, I saw the genuine caring and love between them. Like many couples, although they were often irritated with one another, their relationship was solid. Ruth was always fussing over Joe, kind of like a mother hen with a deep desire to nurture her husband, something that Joe needed this as well.
(a favorite quote )
Indeed, Joe Allston was the "Spectator Bird" in the game of life.
Read this Book! I definitely plan to read more books by this author.