Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Bird Skinner

This post is in honor of my friend Michael Dougherty, who spent four years in the Pacific during WWII (Guadalcanal, Okinawa) and whom I visited in Waimanalo (Oahu, Hawaii) several times in my younger years.  He was the author and the publisher of TO STEAL A KINGDOM - PROBING HAWAIIAN HISTORY, an important, even crucial, well-researched and heartfelt text which influenced the Sovereignty movement in the islands. A sometimes cantankerous old U.S. Marine, he also demonstrated in his life the significance of Dylan Thomas's "do not go gentle into that good night."

Alice Greenway's powerful, and, in my opinion, deeply enduring novel, "The Bird Skinner" is not a book for anyone but the most serious readers of contmporary fiction; it is not an easy glossy read, but a difficult and disturbing tale structurally moving back and forth in time, and using, organically, not gratuituously, the life and work of Stevenson and Hemingway.  After a brief Prologue, it opens with a quote from RLS's (Tusitala, as he was known in Samoa) "Treasure Island" - "Yet some of the men who had sailed with him before expressed their pity to see him so reduced."  The figure of Long John Silver pervades the novel as does the protagonist's reseach into what might have been the actual location of the island.  "It was just the sort of place Stevenson would soon set sail for himself.  Taking his royalties from "Treasure Island" and his tubercular cough, the great writer would leave dour Edinburgh and bleak Britain for good. Sail to the South Seas, to the Gilberts, to Tahiti, and finally to Samoa, where he is buried....Jim finishes his drink and watches the sky light up across the cove.  Stevenson dreamed it all before, Jim thinks. He sent Silver ahead to scout, to reconnoiter, to lead him in." 

"Lowering his foot, he stretches his toes against the rough, scratchy weave of the sun-bleached kilim rug.  Catches an unwelcome glimpse of the stump in the bureau mirror.  The ugly, blunt rounded shape of the thing.  Its grotesque pink hue.  Nestled against it, his uaroused penis curled in its nest of gray hair....Welcome to old age, the final decline. He's still got his mind, as far as he's aware.  He's not sure in what order he'd like to lose his other faculties: eyesight, hearing, bladder.  The inevitable slide.  His set of toes looks lost, unmatched, unsymmetrical.  His one thin leg unfit for the task of hopping."

A dark novel, rooted in the Solomon Islands, and exploring how guilt and regret pervade the present.   


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