Novelist norman handily illustrates the early years of a boy artist
PUT ASIDE THE predictable jealousy, tragedy, infidelity, and murder of your typical novel. They do appear in The Bird Artist (1994), Howard Norman’s third work of literary fiction. But the coming-of-age part in the first chapter—where we see a Newfoundland boy at the turn of the century aspire to draw birds—is itself enough to satisfy.
Oh, and yes, by the way, young bird artist Fabian Vas has committed a murder. He confesses his crime bluntly in the novel’s first sentences.
Otherwise, Fabian recounts his pre-murder boyhood through much of the early novel. His reticent father works hard at the docks, while his mother, a neighborly librarian, and a mail-order teacher encourage Fabian’s art. Things change, however, when a new lighthouse keeper, the swaggering Botho August, comes to town. When Botho sleeps with Fabian’s mother, and then with the bird artist’s first true love, Margaret, Fabian has no choice: he shoots the man.
But we digress. First and foremost the birds, and the drawing and painting thereof.
The novel opens in 1911 at the fictitious Witless Bay, Newfoundland, and we hear Fabian tell a story that is not unlike that of many young boys who aspire to be artists, whether they finally succeed at that vocation or not.
Fabian’s mother first discovers his talent. She sees his bird drawings in the margin of the new primer book from school. At Mrs. Bath’s living room library, Fabian is introduced to natural history books, and in particular, “the book that changed my life.” It is a natural history of the Southeast coast and Bahamas—which includes 109 magnificent, colorful bird illustrations. “This book was a true revelation for me,” Fabian reports.
He even “dreamed about” the wild variety of birds.
At age eight, to advance his drawing skills, Fabian practically lives out at the coves, wetlands, and trout camps. At age eleven he publishes an illustrated field guide for birds (not that the locals don’t already know their birds). Soon enough, through Bird Lore magazine he hooks up with a correspondence teacher, Mr. Sprague, who lives way off in Halifax. Thus begins Fabian’s apprenticeship: each month he packs and sends five pencil and watercolor renderings of birds. Mr. Sprague sends them back with comments and notes.
Sprague’s typical comment is, “You have a knack, but you’re no genius,” or “shows improvement.” Then he goes into detail about a feather pattern, claw, or bird characteristic. Occasionally, he’ll enthuse: “The belted kingfisher you sent me . . . is pretty good—fine. A solid effort, Mr. Vas.”
For young Fabian, birds are a bit more magical that his mentor seems to take them. Fabian tacks above his desk a bird painting Sprague has done for Bird Lore. It spurs him on (again, not unlike any boy artist):
“[The red-throated loon] was so graceful and transcendent that each time I sat down in front of it to work, it made me want to give up. But then after I had stared at it, the loon became an inspiration. It was uncanny how the change overtook me. The pencil seemed to move of its own volition. The brush made a beak, feather, eye. . . . I was convinced that birds were kinds of souls.”
Back to the murder. In the end, Fabian is acquitted, even though everyone in the village knows it was him. He’s acquitted because his father, with nothing left to lose but his son’s love, feigns guilt, takes the blame, and flees the village.
Fickle Margaret is another story. Fabian’s parents had refused to let him marry her, and had nearly forced Fabian into a rural arranged marriage (which is what prompted Margaret to sleep with Botho as a kind of revenge). On the night that Fabian shoots Botho, Margaret also shows up, shooting him a second time, the shot that actually kills. And the family tragedies multiply. Fabian’s mother is so ashamed of her infidelity that she rows out into the harbor, crashes her skiff into the mail boat, and drowns.
Through it all, Fabian continues his boyhood joy of drawing and painting birds, this after his laborious day job at the docks. He becomes a regional bird artist of some note. And as things settle down, he and his first love Margaret—with her drinking and psychiatric issues—marry and welcome a child.
The art theme wraps up the story. The village minister, who preaches about the sins of the Vas family, nevertheless makes Fabian an offer: paint a mural in the church hall, something like a “peaceable kingdom” made up of local flora and fauna. Fabian agrees to do it for the money. There’s one caveat, though. The minister demands that Fabian insert people and events in the vast mural, and these must include one event in particular: the murder of Botho August. Fabian complies.
One day, after the mural is done, old Mr. Sprague—the master bird artist—arrives from Halifax. Not long to live, he is eager to see the progress of his students scattered around the countryside. On seeing the birds in the mural, the old teachers says as usual, “shows improvement.”
Sprague still talks as he did during the years of correspondence. “The Ibis is splendid,” he tells Fabian. “The owl working over the trout with its talons has a proper ferocity, and I’d recommend that you put birds into action more often—have them doing something.” And so it went.
The fading master is passing his mantel to a student who’s done fairly well (if old Sprague only knew!) “Clearly your strength is in shorebirds. My best guess is that you’ll continue to contribute” to the availability of quality bird art. “You’ve got a knack. And while you may never wholly make a living from bird art—difficult for anyone—your mergansers, teals, all of your ducks . . . may secure you some small reputation.”
The Bird Artist was a finalist for the National Book Awards. And the part about the boy-artist and his teacher echoes down, and across every generation, as young lads everywhere are awe-struck by artistic pictures, and want to make them, too.