Admirers of slim, erotically charged novels will greet Noy Holland’s first novel Bird with a sense of discovery. For fans of her three short story collections, Bird is a satisfying evolution of her lyrical, unsettling prose that ratchets the tension between poetic language and mythic narrative, and feels both deeply modern and ancient.
Bird is a ballad to vanished love, to an erotic connection akin to rapture that the main character, whose nickname is Bird, cannot escape, even though Mickey, her golden bad boy lover, took her places she shouldn’t have gone.
The present is one autumn day 12 years after Mickey’s abrupt departure “in order not to kill her.” Bird is breast-feeding her infant daughter after a difficult birth, her second child. She might be suffering from post-partum depression—certainly she has let herself go. Married to the doctor who treated the wounds Mickey inflicted, she lives in the countryside, trying to find solace in domesticity, but yearning for the thrills of the past.
The link to Bird’s past is her friend Suzy, who still lives a version of the wild life—traveling the world, climbing mountains. Suzy calls her one morning with news of Mickey. Like Bird, she was part of the downtown New York scene of an unspecified era, when New York City contained great swathes of abandoned riverfront and untamed parkland. She brings Bird back to the days when she and Mickey made love in the gingko bushes by the Gowanus Canal, rode bicycles through the cobblestone streets of Brooklyn at night, squatted in crumbling tenements. They lived on the fringes, Mickey hustling and stealing, the two sharing drugs and liquor bought with the proceeds. Sometimes he hit her, or tied her up and played sexual games with her. He would disappear for weeks at a time. Unable to part from him despite his deceit and rage, Bird spiraled deeper into trouble.
There is a supple narrative flow to Bird. The intimacy of the conversations with Suzy give Bird’s memories as she dwells on the loss of her mother and the departure of Mickey an immediacy, and her emotional state an intensity, that move deftly back and forth through time on this one day.
Bird is drawn into the past as she and her friend call each other throughout the morning and afternoon. Suzy insists Bird is play-acting at domesticity: “The old looseness, come on, you must miss it. You miss it. Your brain makes a drug to subdue you is all.”
Suzy has tapped into something Bird is fighting in herself: “She tries to want that, but what she finds to want is the old mess of herself, the old dream that Suzy lives. Makes up, or lives, Bird can’t sort it.”
Suzy has had her own Mickey phase, but unlike Bird, she put him behind her—or so she claims. Why does Suzy taunt and tempt Bird? Jealousy? Perhaps she suspects that Mickey felt more for Bird than anyone, and that he left her so as not to destroy her. Mickey isn’t the sort of lover who stays. Perhaps that is why he still exerts this magnetic pull on Bird, too.
But Bird is far removed from Mickey and Suzy: “She married another. Mothered another.”
What Suzy dangles is the latest news of Mickey. She has names of the women Mickey has moved on to: Beatrice, once a dancer. Brigitte, a girl who painted. Rosemarie. Country girls, exotics.
“That’s enough,” Bird tells her.
“Oh, it isn’t. I keep you posted. Remember,” Suzy insists, “the sentence you get to finish? The dream you’re not wrangled from?”
Bird hangs up on Suzy. She goes back to her bed and her husband to dream of Mickey: “She will turn a corner and find him there. She will never in her life again see him. Sacred, she thinks, and narcotic. That’s how it felt to her.”
Towards the end of their time together, Mickey and Bird headed west to deliver a car to a client in Denver. From there, destitute, high on drugs, they hitchhiked south with no destination. They were picked up by a middle-aged trucker named Tuk and his pregnant teenage girlfriend Doll Doll. With a pair of wolf pups in the backseat of the Ryder truck, they journeyed into a landscape furrowed by lavender mountains. Doll Doll summed up the allure of running away from themselves:
I like every sort of a road … like dirt how it rolls up behind you, the oil road, I like the smell of it. Rain!… a cloud darkens up you can see way off in the basin. You are driving so fast to get there. …You’ve got the top down. You put your face up. Up! The rain’s like needles. And you are flying, you are flying all the way through.
On the phone, Bird retells her stories of Tuk and Doll Doll, the ones she spins out for her husband’s friends while he looks on, in a way she believes is approval at his wild bird who once flew in the open spaces of the mythic west. Suzy listens impatiently; she’s heard them all before. “Well, it’s a story,” Suzy says. “They were misfits. You never saw them again. They were like you some way you can’t name.”
Rapture, like memory, is powerful, its grasp long and tenacious. But love comes in many guises. Waiting for the school bus to deliver her son on this early autumn day through which the novel has woven in and out of Bird’s past—“days of such wind you can’t walk straight. Eddies of dust, a buoyant seed. How the wind there blew, it blows.”—Bird takes stock of this pastoral world: the blue day, a field of seven white cows, her barn, where the swallows dip in the dusk. Her son has drawn a picture of a cheetah; the sun shines in his eyes, the “baby flutters her milky arms.” She is “dazzled, rapt – gone to her knees in the wind of a passing world.”
Francesca de Onis-Tomlinson is an Emmy and Cine Golden Eagle award-winning television producer and a writer. She is currently working toward an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.