THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Friday, February 22, 2013

THE BIRD ARTIST by Howard Norman

The Bird Artist is a mystery, but an unusual one. In most mysteries a crime is committed early in the story (or maybe even before the story begins) and the reader knows that eventually there will be a solution and perhaps even a confession. But this isn’t what happens in The Bird Artist.  In fact, the novel employs a plot device popularized by a TV series.

Remember Columbo, which starred the late Peter Falk? Remember how the series utilized what came to be labeled the “inverted detective story” format? There was never any surprise about what crime was committed or who committed it, because that was shown at the beginning of the episode. The plot primarily revolved around how Columbo unraveled the mystery and trapped the perpetrator.

Here is the opening paragraph of  The Bird Artist: (There is no need for a spoiler alert because if you read the book this is the first thing you will read.)

“My name is Fabian Vas. I live in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.”

And there you have it. The book begins with a confession and immediately we know there was a murder and we know the identity of both the victim and the murderer. The what and the who questions have been answered. All that remains is the why. And even the answer to that question becomes apparent quite early in the story.

This quirky and offbeat novel is set early in the 20th century in, as mentioned above, Witless Bay, Newfoundland. And it is filled with quirky and offbeat characters who have quirky and offbeat names. Fabian Vas and Botho August are introduced in the first paragraph. But it doesn’t stop there. Here are some of my other favorites: Mari-Lyma Fsjkskedjial, Sander Muggah, and Odeon Sloo.

Reading the names leads one to wonder if Norman as a child might have been unduly influenced by Dr. Seuss. But maybe not. The most famous book ever written about Newfoundland was the award-winning The Shipping News written by Annie Proulx. Here are my favorite character names in that novel: Tert Card, Nutbeem, Billy Pretty, Wavey Prowse, Beety Buggit, Alvin Yark, Ed Punch, and Diddy Shovel. Perhaps names of this sort are common in that province.

Despite the fact that the reader of The Bird Artist knows from the first paragraph that a murder has been committed, there is much humor in the novel. And much of that humor stems from the uniqueness of the characters and their high threshold of tolerance for the eccentricities and foibles of their friends and neighbors.

I must confess there were times when I thought, no way, that would never happen or that person would not act or react in that way. That just isn’t logical. But then I would think: I’ve never been to Newfoundland; I don’t know anyone from Newfoundland; I don’t know anyone who has visited Newfoundland; I don’t even know anyone who knows anyone from Newfoundland. Maybe at that time and in that place it would be logical – especially in a place named Witless Bay.

Howard Norman

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