“The Spectator Bird” by Wallace Stegner

“The Spectator Bird” by Wallace Stegner (1976) – 214 pages

 I’m sure most of you have had this experience.  You hear about a book through an ecstatic review that makes the book seem like it is only somewhat better than “War and Peace”, “Pride and Prejudice“, and “Middlemarch” put together.  You read some other reviews of the book, and these are all overwhelmingly positive.  Then you do what it takes to get the book, but after reading the book you can’t help but ask, “What’s the big deal?  This is pretty ordinary stuff.”

 In “The Spectator Bird”, Joe Alston is an ex-literary agent now retired and living in California with his wife Ruth.   The Alstons seem quite satisfied with their retired life.  Joe spent his work life hobnobbing with the famous writers, and now they are leading the good life in California.  In one chapter of the book, one of his former clients, a libidinous Italian author, comes out to visit the Alstons and brings his college-age girlfriend.  This libertine Italian writer is a rather stock character, and the entire scene did not seem as humorous as the author intended it to be.

There is a self-satisfied aura that seems to permeate everything Joe Alston does and says.   It’s sort of like someone laughing at their own jokes, only worse. Of course that would be a boring book about a man who is content with his entire life.  There was one terrible thing that has happened in the Alstons’ past.  Their son, their only child, died in a surfing accident twenty years ago.  Joe still feels guilt about his relationship with his son.  This is certainly understandable and believable.

A postcard from an old friend from Denmark, Astrid, causes Joe to get out his diary from a trip to Denmark that the Alstons took twenty years ago as a way to recover from their grief over the death of their son.  At his wife’s insistence, Joe reads the diary aloud.

I’m not going to elaborate any more on the plot, but instead will express my dissatisfactions with the book.   The death of their son and its effects on the Alstons twenty years later could have been a moving and involving theme in the book.  However it seemed more like a plot device to add some turbulence into the couple’s extremely smooth life and as a means to add meaning to their trip to Denmark.  Then it is dropped.   This trip to Denmark itself seemed rather unremarkable; perhaps it was the pedestrian language by which it is described in the diary.  The people they meet in Denmark come across as unexceptional, even the writer Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen).   Because none of the people including the Alstons captured my interest, the supposedly dramatic ending to the book seemed unearned.    

 “The Spectator Bird” won the National Book Award for 1976.


6 responses to this post.

  1. I haven’t read this particular book, but Wallace Stegner is one of my favorite authors. I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I believe that Angle of Repose is his masterpiece. If you ever decide to give him another try, you might check this one out. Or – maybe you have to live on, or near, the West Coast, which is his area of specialty, to really appreciate him.


    • Hi Weekend Reader,
      So many things go into our reactions to a book, it’s kind of a fool’s game to judge them. I’m certainly not on Mount Olympus looking down.


  2. Oh, I’m sorry to hear this. Have you read other Stegners? I, like Weekend Reader, love Angle of Repose. It’s one of those books that has stuck with me. I have his Crossing to safety (I think that’s the title) in my TBR but haven’t read it yet – I bought it because I loved Angle so much.

    I have a favourite quote from Angle: ‘Civilisations grow by agreements and accommodations and accretions, not by repudiations.’ As I recollect at the time, I felt Stegner was talking both macro, as in civilisations, and micro, as in marriage. It certainly makes sense to me on both levels.


  3. Hi Whisperinggums,
    I think I may have read Stegner before, not sure which one. I don’t completely understand that quote, but that quote may be the reason I don’t respond to Stegner’s writing very well. Just kidding!


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