Review: The Spectator Bird

Wallace Stegner (1976)

Joe Allston is a former literary agent living the calm, quiet, routine life of the retired. As described by his creator, author Wallace Stegner, Joe has been “a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own.” If it’s true what they say about a person’s career defining who they are, then this speaks volumes about Joe’s view of his own life. He didn’t choose his career—he just fell into it.  His life wasn’t interesting enough to write about, so he brokered the works of others. And yet, this is Joe’s story—and very interesting it is.

A postcard from Denmark disrupts the routine and sets Joe to do the very thing he’s loaths, recalling the past. He pulls out a journal written during a trip he and his wife took twenty years earlier to his mother’s birthplace. The Allstons rent a room from a Danish Countess with a mysterious past and an unexpected connection to Joe’s heritage, and their extended visit abroad becomes a turning point in Joe’s life, but not in the way he, or the reader, anticipate.

The journal serves as an effective flashback technique.  Stegner has his character reading the journal aloud to his wife over the course of a few days, allowing the husband and wife to comment on the past as it happens.  Because the past is revealed a bit at a time, the suspense of what will happen (already known to Joe and Ruth, who drop hints to the reader in their conversation) builds throughout the book.

The Spectator Bird is about the physical and mental aches and pains that come with age, from sitting too long reflecting on your life, and from sharing decades of that life with one person who thinks they know you better than you know yourself.  Joe is so richly depicted that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that he’s a little bit autobiographical.  One facet of Joe that I loved was his adolescent moodiness, periods of petulance and self-doubt quite believable in a frustrated creative-type, and so refreshing to find in a character on the far side of his youth.

I tend to think of Wallace Stegner as a western writer, who depicts the vast, untamed expanse of the country and the people who move across and settle in it. This book reminded me that Stegner is a not only a master storyteller grounded in place, but one who excels at creating characters with a directness and honesty that bring them to life beyond the page.

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