We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The heroine of Antonya Nelson’s second novel is an avid reader and fan of recreational drugs; Nelson clearly wants us to understand that this melding is not coincidental. Birdy Stone lives in a trailer parked in an old prostitution quarter of Pinetop, N.M., where her books lie “waterlogged and neglected, holding up lopsided furniture…abused, often unfinished, resting against one another indiscriminately, Elmore Leonard atop Marcel Proust, Jane Eyre wedged between Valley of the Dolls and Sybil.” Her predilection arouses some suspicion in Pinetop, but Birdy disdains her neighbors and their dead-end town. Because her extended lapses into self-pity are interrupted only by fits of boredom, she embraces any remedy for disenchantment, be it smoked or bound. Yet her story offers enchantments of its own.
Birdy’s almost pathological need to shirk adult responsibility would be far less interesting if she didn’t teach at a high school. The students in her senior English class are growing convinced that her greatest ambition is to depress them. While they are willing to hold her accountable for the general dearth of happy endings in canonical literature, they have little use for the stuff. They regard this “lover of sad literature” as a foreigner among them. Like many of her ilk, Birdy finds her students’ indifference dispiriting. “Accustomed to Spanish pronunciation,” she notices, “they called novels ‘nobbles,’ reducing them to rabbit food.”
Nelson’s novel is populated with compelling minor characters whom Birdy largely disregards; most have their own disappointments. Her sole friend is a gay colleague named Jesus who still lives with his mother and in the proverbial closet. The two of them act adolescent in the teachers’ lounge, joking and using the honorific to address the school secretary: “Other teachers called her by her first name, Edith, but Jesus and Birdy always said, ‘Good morning, Mrs. Pack’ like brats.” Even in the midst of their colleagues, these two declare their primary allegiance with the students, with reckless youth, “by refusing to grow up.”
One mark of Birdy’s immaturity is her deference to other people’s parents, which is best understood in light of her mother’s recent death. When a student’s distraught mother requests that Birdy help edit her sensationalist memoirs, Birdy cannot refuse. Isadora Anthony’s daughter and husband died within days of each other, providing the town with an intriguing compound mystery. But in the 10 years that have elapsed since the deaths, the town has lost all interest, though there is little else to distract them. “Everyone did not know everyone else’s business, and the people were neither friendlier nor more genuine, the lifestyle not purer—just duller,” Birdy concludes. A deft and witty writer, Nelson uses Birdy’s ironic distance to tremendous advantage. Pinetop does have its eccentricities, but neither Birdy nor Nelson will indulge them.
The degree of Birdy’s isolation is clearly insupportable, whatever thrill slumming may bring her. Violating the first injunction of teaching (“Faculty Shall Not Date Students”), Birdy soon begins an affair with one of her students, not coincidentally Mrs. Anthony’s son. She tries to justify her trespass as a self-aware episode of perversity, protesting Mark’s declarations of love by saying, “You don’t love me….You just think you do.” But whatever critical distance she claims for herself, whatever higher vantage she takes on the situations of her own making, her guilt remains unmitigated.
Birdy has hardly been blameless in affairs of the heart; her two major relationships involved “a burly alcoholic” professor who once taught her creative writing and a graduate student-cum-dope fiend named Reg, her fiance until Birdy all but left him at the altar. These relationships were literally and figuratively academic. Even Jesus, who is luckily impervious to her romantic charms, calls her cold-blooded. “Someone was always telling her this, charging her with insensitivity. Her! The English teacher, the woman sniveling over John Keats, weeping for Willy Loman,” Birdy marvels. “She reassured herself that if she was worried about it, it couldn’t be so. Isn’t that what people’s mothers told them?”
Unfortunately, Birdy’s mother cannot offer her daughter such assurances. Although she believes herself “too old to be pitied,” Birdy is not above the well-timed lament. In fact, she tries to use her loss to establish a connection with Mrs. Anthony, whose grief is too intensely personal to allow extrapolation. Birdy quickly discovers this in her editorial work with the woman. The manuscript is inchoate, the prose pathetic; Mrs. Anthony “did not ‘write,’ she ‘journaled,’ which, as a verb, seemed exactly like what it was: tunneling into one’s own nasty navel with a pencil.” Birdy grows furious at the repeated equivocations and contradictions contained in Mrs. Anthony’s turgid narrative and imagines herself as dead daughter Teresa’s true champion, the only one who wants to make any sense of her tragedy.
Teresa’s grave bears the epitaph “Our Girl,” and her mother tentatively titles her memoirs Somebody’s Girl, but Birdy is clearly Nelson’s title character, belonging to nobody, belonging nowhere. Estranged from her surviving family in Chicago, Birdy cannot forgive her father’s nearly immediate remarriage or her sister’s happy and fecund home life. “And perhaps that was what spurred her, the knowledge that no one seemed to need her, that everyone appeared better off without both her and her mother,” she realizes. “As if Birdy, too, had died, or ought to have the good grace to do so.”
Yet Birdy prefers to hover in a limbo of her own making—not quite an adult, not quite a child, neither wholeheartedly kind nor cruel. Taken together, her actions resemble a long-lasting low-grade tantrum. In her sexual encounters with Mark Anthony, she becomes aware of her “urge to hurt him. Youth lacked humility. She wanted to see something besides easy joy on his face. She wanted something besides flawlessness to show on his skin….She was breaking him in, her very own picaresque hero whose adventures would serve to mellow and season him.”
Although Birdy has a real talent for recognizing the genre into which other people’s lives fall—comedy, mystery, tragedy—she is helpless in categorizing her own. Here the complexity of Nelson’s work becomes evident. However reluctantly, Birdy must commit to a story line for herself. Her lover is slated for graduation from high school as she rapidly approaches her 30th birthday. The townsfolk rightfully reject her. Mrs. Anthony summarily dismisses her from her duties, so that Birdy’s obsession with Teresa loses its professional patina and becomes sordid speculation. Birdy tries to explain Mr. Anthony’s death as a footnote to Teresa’s, as a guilty suicide after murder, mainly because she cannot brook accidents. She wants the Anthonys’ story to have a narrative neatness, to operate in clear sequences of cause and effect. It doesn’t.
At her mother’s knee, Birdy learned to prize “the brief coherence a story gave the world, the coupling of humor and disaster, farce and carnage.” The world cannot sustain that coherence for long, and there aren’t enough mushrooms to allow Birdy to maintain the illusion of it. Yet Nelson manages to shape this material into a moving whole, even as she illustrates how very prosaic sorrow is. Nelson traps Birdy in a web of sad stories and shows that her finely honed instincts for flight serve for nought. Birdy grows up when she allows that her sadness does not make her terminally unique, when she recognizes disenchantment as a universal birthright.