Some rumblings about Birdy by William Wharton

I’ve been re-reading some William Wharton novels since he died a little over a month ago. It’s been slow going because I’ve been busy, but the first title up was Birdy. It’s about two guys, Birdy and Al, who becomes friends in school and raise pigeons together. Birdy has such a love for birds, he eventually begins to dream he’s a bird. Then they’re drafted into the army to fight in WWII. After the war, Birdy ends up in a mental hospital and Al, having gone through some traumatic experiences too, tries to talk Birdy back to reality. The novel switches between the two of them narrating: Al talking about some of the things they did as kids; Birdy recalling (and reverting back to) his dream life, which may be the most compelling aspect of the novel.

I first read Birdy when I was 17, around the same age as the characters in the book. I read it over a long weekend by myself and became completely immersed in its reality. It is easily the most influential book I read during my formative years. I even began to breed finches a couple years later and used the book as a guide. I didn’t dream I was a bird or any of that, but it was certainly a rewarding experience. I loved it. I’d get back into having finches again, but my lifestyle can’t accommodate it (having 2 cats doesn’t help).

Birdy the film, directed by Allan Parker, with its excellent (though somewhat dated) soundtrack by Peter Gabriel, isn’t a bad film, but I can think of more than a few things I would have done differently. The best parts are the flashbacks showing Birdy and Al meeting each other and becoming friends. Birdy’s internal life from the novel, however, is virtually absent and WWII becomes Vietnam. I’m glad I saw the film because it led me to read William Wharton, but I’ll take the novel over the film any day of the week.

I don’t think I’m capable of being objective about the novel, or about the experience of getting to know William Wharton over the years from reading the rest of his books. That’s how it seemed sometimes anyway, especially with his later books where he does little to hide himself from the reader. The more I got to know him, the more I wanted to know him. He wrote under a pseudonym and lived in a houseboat in France as a painter with his wife. That’s a pretty damn cool life.

Here are two quotes from Birdy that may or may not have anything do with whatever the hell I’m going on about.

“Birds, like people, have been living in cages so long they’ve forgotten many things they should do naturally.”

— Birdy (p. 119)

“Before you know it, if you’re not too careful, you can get to feeling sorry for everybody and there’s nobody left to hate.”

— Al (p. 216)

Related posts:
Where is William Wharton?
William Wharton, 1925-2008

William Wharton, 1925-2008

As a commenter noted on my previous post, William Wharton, Author, Dies at 82:

William Wharton, a successful impressionist painter who at 53 published his first novel, “Birdy,” which won a National Book Award, became a critically acclaimed movie and led to a dozen more books, died Wednesday in Encinitas, Calif. He was 82.

Phillip and I are saddened to learn about this, that we won’t be reading anything new from him. You learn a lot about him and his family through his books, and he seemed to be someone you’d want to hang around with.

I’m going to reread Houseboat on the Seine: it’s a celebration of his life. Highly recommended. It’ll make you laugh and make you cry. I enjoyed ALL his books.

William Wharton was an accomplished painter but I never saw much of his work until Phillip found this YouTube video of his paintings:

Phillip and I were coincidentally discussing an old interview of Wharton the day before we heard of his death: Reasons for Life: A conversation with William Wharton.

I believe that we constantly have to keep our ear to the ground, our ground, and all the rest of it, in order to know what seems to fit the morality and the persona of what we usually call “God”. But the very word “God” is meaningless. The word itself does not mean anything to me, I do not care for the word itself, it is just the word “dog” spelled backwards.

He talks about influences in his life including painters. An interesting interview.

Now go read one of his excellent books.

Update: An informative obituary of Wharton from The Guardian.