Killing the lighthouse keeper: a foggy tale

September 14, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

Howard Norman's second novel, "The Bird Artist," begins this way: "My name is Fabian Vas . . . I am a bird artist, and I have more or less made my living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself."

The rest of the novel describes the different ways that Fabian thinks of himself, his family, and the events occurring in Witless Bay, Newfoundland -- from 1891, the year of Fabian's birth, until 1923, 12 years after the murder of the lighthouse keeper.

This is a coming-of-age story like "The Northern Lights," Mr. Norman's first novel, which was nominated in 1987 for the National Book Award. There are other parallels. Both novels are philosophical; both are set in Canada; both concern a fragmented marriage, idiosyncratic people and manipulative women who are catalysts for the action.

A resident of Washington and a professor at the University of Maryland, Mr. Norman has commented in the past on the Rashomon-like style of his fiction. That style is especially evident in "Kiss in the Hotel Joseph Conrad and Other Stories," Mr. Norman's second book. Showing the same event from myriad viewpoints, Mr. Norman gives a certain ambiguity to his writing.

Ambiguity settles like a mist over the events in the "The Bird Artist." The story itself forms an ironic comment on the visual art, which is its central metaphor. The murder of Botho August is the main action. That action raises questions about what is real/invented, and how these become a work of art.

Fabian is the admitted murderer. But admissions don't mean much in a story punctuated by startling comments such as: "Words have nothing yet everything to do with the moment . . . If you lie, you become the lie." Besides, readers see the action through Fabian's narration, and narrators aren't usually reliable. In addition, there is conflicting testimony suggesting Fabian may not have actually murdered Botho.

Fabian may have wounded Botho, after which Orkney, Fabian's father, fired the final shot. At the time of the murder, Fabian was distraught. He could hardly stand up, much less fire a gun. Orkney had reason to commit the murder. Botho had been having an affair with Alaric, Orkney's wife.

Margaret, Fabian's lover, testified that she fired the fatal shot. Margaret had slept with Botho before Alaric became involved with him. Possibly because of this, Alaric detested Margaret and arranged for Fabian to marry a distant cousin. To spite Alaric, Margaret again slept with Botho. She could have killed him to further spite Alaric.

Fabian seems like an unlikely murderer. An obsessive person, he lives in his own world. This is partly because he lives in an isolated village of few adults and fewer children. And it's partly because he is fascinated by birds.

"My true subject is birds," he says. "It's my heart's logic." Ducks, sandpipers, crows, plovers, kingfishers, gulls, ibis: Fabian's been painting since he was 9 years old, when his mother discovered a page full of the heads of gulls and ospreys.

"I am a bird artist," Fabian says every several pages. He takes a correspondence course with artist Isaac Sprague, who uses art "to examine life closely and describe things in close-up language." Fabian wants to use his art in the same way. Soon he sends paintings unsolicited and solicited to various bird magazines. When two journals solicit his work, he plans a life painting birds all over the world.

Then his father takes a three-month trip hunting birds; his mother has the affair, feeling locked into the sameness of her marriage. (How people escape sameness is another of Mr. Norman's themes.) As a result, Botho is killed. To memorialize Botho and to make some retribution for his part in the murder, Fabian paints a mural of the island, its birds and its people.

As the story ends, Fabian explains, "I did not paint anyone actually shooting Botho, only my painter's rendition of the aftermath." That rendition is the climax of this poetically written, though somewhat opaque, story.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poems.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Bird Artist"

Author: Howard Norman

Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

Length, price: 289 pages, $20

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