The Spectator Bird

The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner, was published in 1976, and received the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977.

From the publisher…

Joe Allston is a cantankerous, retired literary agent who is, in his own words, “just killing time until time gets around to killing me.” His parents and his only son are long dead, leaving him with neither ancestors nor descendants, tradition nor ties. His job, trafficking the talent of others, has not been his choice. He has passed through life as a spectator, before retreating to the woods of California in the 1970s with only his wife, Ruth, by his side. When an unexpected postcard from a long-lost friend arrives, Allston returns to the journals of a trip he has taken years before, a journey to his mother’s birth­place where he once sought a link with his past. Uncovering this history floods Allston with memories, both grotesque and poignant, and finally vindicates him of his past and lays bare that Joe Allston has never been quite spectator enough.

Throughout much of this story, Joe is a grumpy old man. At seventy, he has many physical aches and pains but he carries some heavy emotional aches and pains as well. Pain of any kind can certainly make a person grumpy and color one’s outlook on life. Dealing with the changes retirement brings is also quite challenging, and in Joe’s case presents itself in depression. Retirement puts one at a distance which is both welcome and a big challenge. I remember hearing my father say about retirement, “It’s amazing how quickly you are forgotten in the workplace.” Joe seems to be sitting on the sidelines, even more a spectator than earlier in his life, not sure of what he wants to do with his life at this point.

“Maybe because the bush tits are doing what I thought we would be doing out here, just messing around, paying no attention to time or duty, kicking up leaves and playing hide and seek up and down the oak trunks and generally enjoying themselves.

Joe also continues to grieve for the loss of his son and only child, Curt, who died in a surfing accident (Joe thinks it was possibly a suicide). He has not been able to let go of the guilt he feels about this troubled relationship with his son, and he questions himself every day.

“Do I hate the thought of Curt’s death more because he never fulfilled himself, or because he never fulfilled me?

Joe struggles with the aging process and grieves for the losses and irrevocable changes time brings, and he is also struggling to redefine meaning and purpose at this later stage of  life.  As he and Ruth share an old journal from a trip to Denmark they took many years earlier, they rediscover some important and defining moments in their marriage. It becomes clear that the most important thing is his relationship with Ruth, and that their marriage, with the easy (and difficult)  companionship of so many years, with what Virginia Woolf calls the “daily-ness” of their relationship, is the strength that guides him through each day and through the rest of his life. His realization of that is a tender and romantic notion, a notion that is also true in my own life experience. Wallace Stegner describes it beautifully.

“The truest vision of life I know is that bird in the Venerable Bede that flutters from the dark into a lighted hall, and after a while flutters out again into the dark. But Ruth is right. It is something — it can be everything — to have found a fellow bird with whom you can sit among the rafters while the drinking and boasting and reciting and fighting go on below; a fellow bird whom you can look after and find bugs and seeds for; one who will patch your bruises and straighten your ruffled feathers and mourn over your hurts when you accidentally fly into something you can’t handle.”

I read this book for The Classics Club. It is the first book I have read by Wallace Stegner, but will not be my last. I admit I’ve been a little intimidated to read him before now. I have some personal connections to him, and he has always loomed as a larger-than-life figure to me, so I think I was simply afraid to try him out. This book started out slowly for me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to like it, but his “big ideas” really touched my heart, his literary references amazed me, and his beautiful “way with words” have all made me a real fan.

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6 thoughts on “The Spectator Bird

  1. Andrea Sachs

    I have enjoyed all of his later novels very much, but found the early ones a bit tough – especially Angle of Repose. Still intend re-reading it now that I am ancient. I may find it less intimidating!

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    1. Robin Post author

      Andrea, I’ve been totally intimidated by Angle of Repose. I’ll have to give it a try at some point. I’m thinking Crossing to Safety might be a good one to read after this one.

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    1. Robin Post author

      Aw, that’s nice of you to say, Tabor. Our TBR lists are so long and the piles of books on our nightstands are already miles tall! But as readers we do love hearing about what others are reading. Happy reading to you!

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  2. nebula61

    Hi, you have hit on an author who I have always heard about but never read! I like the sound of this novel–if I may ask, does he remind you of any other author you’ve read? Can you think of a “if you like ___, you may like Stegner?” Those associations are too personal, of course, and don’t always carry over to other readers but I like to play with them anyway!

    Liked by 1 person

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    1. Robin Post author

      Nebula61, same here. He was on my radar but I had never read any of his books. Your questions are wonderful, but I don’t know who I would compare him to. He’s a beautiful writer but he didn’t speak as personally to me as Ray Bradbury or Ivan Doig, two men I think are also beautiful writers. I’ll think about it and see if I can come up with a comparison.

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