Saturday, July 2, 2016

The Man Who Loved Birds and his Dog

The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2016.

A South Asian doctor moves into a small rural town--her office a former gas station; a priest, former draft dodger, now full of doubts lives in a fading monestary; a communal minded veteran, with plenty of love to share, makes a moderate living off of his marijuana farming; an ambitious, take-no- prisoners county attorney seeks his white whale; a vindictive policeman takes out his disappointment in life by beating his wife and son, his boy loves and seeks out stories, his wife, the boy's mother, loves and tries to protect her son, J.C., the dog roams the countryside freely along with his beloved master. 

The spiritual nature of this novel is clear from the title of its Part One,"The Earthly Paradise." Its opening epigraph a quote from Luke, "this scripture must be fulfilled in me: And he was counted among the lawless." The epigraph that opens Part Two is from the Bhagavand Gita, "Men will seek beauty, whether in life or in death." The novel revolves around Johnny Faye, the veteran turned marijuana farmer. He is a gentle man with a charismatic warmth that draws people to not only trust him but to love him. The vulnerable Dr. Chatterjee, a refugee of sorts, self-exiled in this isolated town unused to foreigners, first meets Johnny Faye as a patient. Later, she encounters him in a statue garden where she regularly goes for peace and solitude. He arrives just as she becomes aware of a pit of snakes just below where her feet are dangling. He, St. Francis like, "took his walking stick and thurst it gently into the coiling mass. 'Greetings, brother snakes. . . ."

Although the St. Francis allusion seems powerful (and his dog's name, J.C. certainly invokes Christian sensibilities), Johnson, describes Faye's snake entwined walking stick as a caduceus, throwing the illusion much further back into spiritual and literary history. Flavian, the troubled priest, meets Johnny Faye during his first foray into a bar--a den of inquity. It is here that Flavian finds himself amidst a pit of metaphorical snakes. Faye protects Flavian from the snakes .He guides Flavian through a game of pool, while, from Flavian's perpsective, he remains a disembodied voice and a faceless body. Faye's caduceus, this time, is not a snake entwined walking stick, but a pool cue. Both Flavian and Dr. Chaterjee are seduced by Johnny Faye's gentle spirit and connection with nature; his ability to provide both physical and spiritual healing. Faye also has a bit of Robin Hood in him, literally stealing from the rich and anonymously delivering up what he has stolen to the poor.

All of this calm and beauty is at odds with the county attorney's war on drugs, his greedy ambition, and his willingness to rely on violence, police bruality, and vigilante justice. Economic disparity is also evident in this small town. The small farmers are no longer able to make a living legitimately and so have formed a marijuana growing cooperative, led by Johnny Faye. Economic downturn threatens the traditional ways of the Abbey, Flavian's home. Soon, the abbey's last vestige of self-sufficiency and connection with nature, their heard of cattle, will be sold off and butchered. The county attorney seeks, in his own way, to seduce, through money, promises, and threats. His aim is to destroy Johnny Faye and he easily persuades Officer Smith to help him. While the contrast of Johnny Faye's personally created microcosm of love and gentleness contrasts starkly with the great evils of the world, the plot progresses with both subtlety and sensitivity. The catharses are present but private. 

Johnson's plot whirls around the yearnings and doubts of both Brother Flavian and Dr. Chatterjee. They are connected through their mutual love for Johnny Faye.  They are also connected by their inability to protect the vulnerable. Dr. Chatterjee has saved the life of Officer Smith's son who he has beaten to the brink of death. Mrs. Smith brings her son to Dr. Chatterjee's office while Brother Flavian is visiting.  It quickly becomes clear to both Chatterjee and Flavian , that Smith's son has not tumbled into an accident but has been repeatedly abused. It is unclear how to protect the boy in this small town where action on their part could put both mother and son in danger and cost Dr. Chatterjee her job.

All of the characters make their choices for better and mostly worse. As Dr. Chatterjee makes her most significant choice, she is reminded by Flavian, that,  "this is America. You have choices," although her choice is coerced by threats. Still, she has reason to believe, that compromised as it her choice was, "She had chosen well." Hope survives despair.

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