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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Joe’s Courageous & Metaphorical Mind

The mind I speak of belongs to Joe Allston, the narrator of Wallace Stegner’s masterful The Spectator Bird. I met Joe years ago in Stegner’s 1967 novel, All the Little Live Things. 

I appreciated Joe then, a retired New York City literary agent. Yet in Stegner’s 1976 National Book Award winning The Spectator Bird, I appreciated Joe even more. 

And I reject the claim that Stegner won the National Book Award because two old male writers were among the judges! I believe Stegner won because the novel is that good. Why do I say this?

The novel’s time frames are the present: 1974 in the Northern California foothills near Stanford University, and in the past through a 1954 journal from Denmark. This fictional journal is Joe’s, but Stegner had the fellowship to Denmark; and his direct experience of the country gives verisimilitude that internet-based fiction never has. (I will refrain from citing examples!)

Stegner gives the reader a five-part novel, with three chapters in each, until the fourth with two, and the fifth with four. The novel is so finely structured that it is not possible to be confused. And Stegner’s pacing is admirable. In the beginning we meet a brooding, molting, aging Joe. Then we meet a beguiling physician, Dr. Ben.  In that same scene, Joe takes a postcard from his rural mailbox. Ah, that old literary technique! Only this isn’t a letter, just a brief note from a countess from twenty years earlier. We want to know who she is, though Joe is reluctant to tell wife Mary about the card.  

What is this novel? A fictional presentation of Stegner’s belief that to understand the pattern of our lives, we must re-experience the past; and to come to terms with our mortality, we must come to understand that past. Joe says, I cope, therefore I am.  Yet this narrator knows the falsity of a stoic doctrine. He is not Marcus Aurelius but prosy Polonius. Yes, that pompous, sententious old man & father in Hamlet. Why this play? Denmark!  And we get a scene like the storm in King Lear in the 1974 time frame, when a wild & whimsical Italian writer comes for lunch at Joe and Ruth’s house. A wonderfully comic and telling scene. In Denmark we will get a mad scientist who seeks perfection through genetics, plus a tennis match between this man of royalty and Joe.  Only a real tennis player could have written this scene, I might add. And Stegner was one.

If you’re aging, do read this novel.  If you’re not, buy a copy and keep it for when “your mind is as sluggish as an earthworm in adobe,” or you are “a tremble like an overfilled glass,” or a “museum exhibition of deteriorations”, or “ a spiderweb with eyes for a face.” And these are only a few of Joe and Stegner’s metaphors on aging.

Next week: Stegner’s return to Salt Lake City in Recapitulation.

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2 kommenttia

Judith Tucker
Judith Tucker
20. toukok.

Stegner's books are full of wonderful metaphonrs and descri[eions. His use of the language is amazing.


Zan Gifford
Zan Gifford
20. toukok.

This blog flows beautifully and will surely bring in those who haven’t yet had the privilege of readIng Stegners novels.

Well done! Thank you

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