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

About Phillip

Phillip Cairns is a beekeeper in St. John's, Newfoundland, who writes about beekeeping at mudsongs.org.

2 Replies to “Some rumblings about Birdy by William Wharton”

  1. I still attempt this quote from the movie

    “..they are just oversized mammary glands al..”

    I do not think it is accurate in terms of the actual line….but hey who needs truth…

    the flight scenes in the movie are good…I really liked the scene above the car which will not start at the beach…

    I know this is going to sound kooky but I was thinking of books I read around the age you read birdy…I read watership down when I was 13 or 14 and I have always had a soft spot for that book and have read it a few times since including reading it to my kids when they were 3-5……in terms of young angst novels I also have a warm spot for rule of the bone…

    I still read young adult novels..and once again am disappointed by what gets the “marketing” nod….this twilight thing is okay at best….if that librarian from up north is still popping in I would be curious what she thinks of the fairy series tithe, and valient by holly black of spiderwick fame…very interesting series…. and I think much better written…

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