The Spectator Bird

Wallace Stegner

I can’t say I was at all familiar with Stegner when I found this book on a giveaway pile with two books that I loved. This could be a rather melancholy book to some as it’s written by a retired literary agent supposedly cajoled into penning his memoirs at his wife’s behest, despite feeling this “implies an arrogance, or confidence, or compulsion to justify oneself” that he doesn’t claim. But I think ultimately there is a sense of resigned hope, even if he does start out describing himself like this:

As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less every year. He knows nothing that posterity needs to be told about. What he really does in his study is pacify a wife who worries about him….

His irritable demeanor is somehow charming. While going through his papers, a postcard from an old friend prompts him to dig out another journal from an earlier time, not long after his only son died, when he and his wife traveled to Europe for several months. He begins reading the journal out loud to her in the evenings, and the novel becomes the story of the two journals. I got a little caught up considering the logistical question of how the two journals are pieced together — the way the “current” one references the older one makes it clear Allston was somehow combining the two, and I was concerned whether the reader was supposed to understand he was typing everything together, even though that wasn’t directly stated. I guess I just pictured him initially writing by hand, since it reads very much like a journal, and then the picture of him rewriting the other journal into a new one seemed bizarre. I’m likely overthinking it, but it felt rather awkward.