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Friday, August 17, 2007

As in Stegner’s other novels, the writing is excellent here. Also as in his other books, one of the main characters is an older man of keen intellectual sensibilities who gets caught up in reflections of his family’s past. Unfortunately, the accounts of this remembered history is unnecessarily sensationalist and seems only a device for generating shock value. Moreover, Joe Allston is jaded and smug, and spends his time giving affected speeches about his disappointment in the world and himself. Crossing to Safety and Angle of Repose are much better than this novel.

Mr. Allston lives in a remote cabin with his wife. He’s retired from a career as a literary agent and is bitter about growing old. He receives a postcard from an old friend and hunts down his journal written during the time he knew her in Denmark. What follows is an introduction to a nobel Danish family that has a long history of important contributions to crop improvement, agricultural methods, horticulture, forest management, animal husbandry, and on the darker side, eugenics. The patriarchs use incest and controlled intergenerational breeding with their peasants as a means of studying the possibility of advancing a superior line of humans.

What I found strange in this plot twist is that the knowledge of incestuous goings-on doesn’t seem to affect Joe Allston, neither for good nor evil. It’s just one more lurid spectacle in the corrupt world of ours. Allston’s tone throughout is passive, aloof, and superior. He is uncritical of his friend’s family, but while he seems to withhold judgment, he also fails to bring any insight or valuable thought to the subject. Perhaps his experience caused the human race in general to sink in his regard and paralyzed his power to act for good. Perhaps his bitterness and jaded demeanor only show the demoralizing effect that human baseness and cruelty can have on others, even if not inflicted directly. Whatever the cause, it was difficult for me to relate or empathize with the brooding contemporary Mr. Allston or the confused younger one.

Title:The Spectator Bird
Author:Wallace Stegner
Date published:1976
Number of pages:214


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