|The Spirit Bird
by Kent Nelson
|University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014
The line between reality and imagination is very thin in The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson. This collection of short stories, told from both first and third person point of view, looks at the inner demons within all of us, the beautiful landscapes that reflect the confusion of our minds, and the differences between who we are and who we want to become.
Nelson has a magical way of twisting ordinary descriptions of people and places and making them come alive for the reader. For example in the self titled story, “The Spirit Bird,” a college professor and a student, Eric, venture into the woods to discover more than just a bird. Powerful sentences showcase a tightly wound tension:
I hear splintering, breaking, and I find Eric behind a boulder tearing pieces of wood apart, separating boards nailed poorly together. He’s stacking them in the small clearing. For a moment I think he’s going to build a fire, but the wood is wet and rotten and wouldn’t burn. He’s not piling but throwing it down randomly, throwing it away.
Nelson creates and then quickly destroys the tension between the two central characters in order to reach the dramatic climax. Here the professor understands why she wanted to look for a mysteriously rare bird, and Eric gains a friend despite his past. Also in this story the reader gets a sense of what The Spirit Bird book is all about—an out-of-the-box way of thinking and a desire to transcend the normal.
“Seeing Desirable Things” and “The Path on the Left Hand” are some of the most striking pieces in the book. They set up the main characters, Allen and Myron respectively, to make big life-changing decisions that will reveal more about themselves than what they hope to achieve. Allen will have to decide if another woman, who is not his wife, is able to sexually pleasure him, while Myron will have to choose whether or not to sleep with another man for the first time. As the stories come to a head, the characters’ inner thoughts are often reflected in powerful descriptions of flashbacks and scenery. In certain instances, these descriptions help heighten the tension that pushes the reader further along in the story and creates an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and resolution when completed.
These stories do not just explore a familiar coming out saga or racially charged tale, but instead reach beyond those typical narratives to come up with something even more engaging for the reader to connect with. In “The Beautiful Light,” Glenna works as a car mechanic in a male dominated field. As the pressure from the male workers at her job grows Glenna tries to escape work and the more she ventures farther and farther away from her usual neighborhood. Nelson does a wonderful job of creating the longing and desire for understanding that Glenna so painstakingly needs. Nelson does this through powerful sentences, such as, “Down the street was a boarded-up Blockbuster, the Uptown Florist, Disc-Go-Round, a movie theater. Dozens of wires crossed overhead. Glenna liked being anonymous, but at the same time, she wasn’t invisible. She occupied a place in the world.” Once Glenna meets Helen and starts to break away from her job does she let herself begin to explore her passion for writing and exploration of herself. The story ends with a beautiful description followed by, “Helen stood up, and Glenna did, too, and Helen took her arm.” Here, the reader can interpret the ending in a variety of ways that allows for a closer look at the descriptions, the characters, and the way Nelson paced his narrative that forces the reader to go back through for a second look.
One of the best stories in the collection is “Who is Danny Pendergast?” Here, humor is used as a way to visually represent the desire to be seen as a whole person. In other words, the story starts out with the protagonist, Danny Pendergast, explaining that he sometimes becomes a donkey. He goes from a normal everyday life as the CEO of Darwin Enterprises to being paranoid of becoming a donkey at any moment. Seen by others as a little weird and an outsider, his transformation allows for humorous moments between the woman he’s seeing, Luisa, and his desire to be liked by her. With witty dialogue, scenes of trying to channel his dead parents’ ghosts, and the feelings he begins to associate with his transformation, Danny realizes a pattern has developed. The thrilling climax comes when he sees Luisa again and finally understands why he started to become a donkey. Nelson does a great job of continuing the storyline without being overly sentimental or detracting from the humor of the piece. The raw emotions only help to further a deep connection with the reader and a better understanding of why such an affliction happened to Danny in the first place.
Ultimately, The Spirit Bird by Kent Nelson highlights the desire to be whole and a reason to reach for more acceptance from other people and one’s self. Wrapped within many layers of race, religion, and sexual orientation, the book looks at complicated narratives of real life issues and pushes the reader to react to these sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious stories by forming deeper bonds and connections to the characters. Still, at the end of each story the reader will feel a sense of accomplishment while simultaneously trying to puzzle out exactly what happened to each character in the end.