The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 1 June 2002

The Spectator Bird

by Wallace Stegner

Joe Allston is getting on in years, now looking back upon his life from the safety of a little house in the California coastal hills. He feels all the aches and pains of age, slippage into geriatric decay, and quiet regrets about a life that was, after all, pretty well-lived. And now, he feels still a young man trapped within the confines of an aging body. This motif will surface often in the story. Still, as a literary agent, he led a literary life of a spectator. He feels he never really lived in the passionate ways so often demanded by the literature he helped to sell. His wife offers gentle and sometimes frustrated concern for his mental well being. Stegner's depiction of Joe and Ruth's relationship is compassionate and intensely well-observed. Then, into this life drops a postcard from the past, reminding Allston of a sad soujourn in Denmark twenty years before, a healing journey after the death of his son. We read Allston's diary of that trip, and a dark tale unfolds. They had set sail on the ill-fated Stockholm (the ship which later sunk the Andrea Doria) on a stormy sea that forshadows the strange emotional turmoil that met them when they landed. Allston's tale is told as an observer, and when he becomes involved, the story is cut short. His nostalgic glance at the past, his regret, and his observations on life's choices are incredibly well told in this book. Stegner's writing is alternately biting and gentle. There is a ring of truth in so much that he has to say. The dark tale of the countess Astrid becomes, perhaps, a little too dramatic, overshadowing Allston's own story. There is a slightly surreal quality to those days in Denmark. Yet, Stegner brings the story around again and closes it with a quiet beauty. Really, this is a great book.

(For this book, Stegner won the 1977 National Book Award for fiction, and deserved it.)

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