“I’m just killing time until time gets around to killing me”
What THE SPECTATOR BIRD is ultimately about is open to any number of interpretations by the reader. It is a book about someone who has watched most of their life, observed their surroundings. What they did with this is the question.
Joe Allston, the main character, is a retired literary agent living outside San Francisco in a rural setting with his wife Ruth. He is 70 years old and suffering from the usual old people problems including a recent bout with heart disease. The book’s first section is largely devoted to his daily complaints about growing old as well as those of his equally elderly friends and neighbors.
A visit from a flashy Italian writer Joe used to represent sparks some past memories and he and his wife end up re-reading a journal he kept of a trip to Denmark they took 20 years previous. There, Joe and Ruth befriended a countess whose apartment they sublet and shared. The story of the countess, her family, and their relationship with Joe are the story.
However, it is a singularly different story and I didn’t see at all what it had to do with the other story set in the present of the aging process and the regret felt (mostly to do with the death of Joe’s son some years previous which I believe is the central theme of an earlier book ALL THE LITTLE LIVE THINGS which I have not read).
That’s not to say it’s bad but the last 1/3 goes in a truly bizarre direction-it almost becomes like a horror novel for awhile. I expected an affair between the countess and Joe (which doesn’t happen) as I felt that was where the book was headed but what happens is totally out of the blue.
I like unpredictability. When I started this book I felt it was just going to be about stodgy old people (which it is a bit) but it also ended up being weirdly imaginative and has a few pungent statements to make on the subject of family.
Joe is a spectator although his life has been rich and full. He has observed human foibles and perhaps thinks he should have been more engaged at certain points of life himself.
Of the four books I’ve read by Stegner, this was the most outside the box. My other Stegner reviews are here.