Book review: The Man Who Loved Birds: a Novel., by Fenton Johnson

Johnson, Fenton. The Man Who Loved Birds: a Novel. (Kentucky Voices). Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, c2016. 318 p. Hardback. ISBN 978-0-8131-6659-9. $24.95.

This is the third novel I have had the privilege of reviewing by Fenton Johnson for the GLBT Round Table.  He is a professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona and also with the MFA program at Spaulding University in Louisville.  Johnson is openly gay and his novel Scissors, Paper, Rock was the first to describe the impact of AIDS in rural America.

The important background character in all these novels is the Knobs Region of Kentucky, a part of Appalachia with lots of high conical hills called knobs.  Resources are scarce so the population mostly struggles.  This is where Johnson grew up, so he knows it well.  This time, among the primary characters, is Johnny Faye, a classic illiterate Vietnam veteran mountain man.  He lives happily and survives by cultivating an ancient crop, formerly known as hemp but now called marijuana.  Nearby is a Trappist monastery, including the monk Brother Flavian.  Into this mix comes the refugee physician Meena, who has escaped oppression in the Bengal region of India near Calcutta.  She is shipped to the Knobs as part of her green-card application to serve as the regional physician.  The three of them are drawn together by their love of the land and, especially, of birds.

There is nothing gay in this fascinating novel until toward the end when the monk and the mountain man finally yield to desires and have a fling which inspires them both. However, the free-wheeling mountain man also loves Meena, and she becomes pregnant.  The finale is not happy, based on a real incident in the sad history of Reagan’s War on Drugs.  Our mountain man is murdered by a state police officer, who later, in real life, is convicted of cocaine trafficking.  He also abuses his young son, whom Meena does her best to rescue.

This, like his earlier novels, is superior fine literature, but also fun to read.  The author is a talented writer, painting diverse characters convincingly and with affection when they deserve it.  I highly recommend this major work for collections of serious gay literary writing and for readers who enjoy fine reads.

James Doig Anderson
Professor Emeritus of Library and Information Science, Rutgers University

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