I saw the film “Birdy” twice when it first came out. At that time I did not yet have any of my own birds, but I was captivated by the storyline and especially by Matthew Modine’s character in the title role. Since then I have become a caregiver to my own flock of budgies and can see myself in the role of Birdy to a certain extent, especially in the shared view that birds should be free and not forced to live in a cage for humans’ entertainment.
Over a quarter century after seeing the movie, I decided to read the novel Birdy by William Wharton. This book was a library donation that I had had kicking around for two decades yet never bothered to read. Birdy drew me in from the first page. I usually struggle through the first pages of any new novel, acquainting myself with characters, plotlines and the author’s writing style. With Birdy, as I turned from page one to two, it felt as natural and as engaging as turning from page 301 to 302.
Birdy is told from two points of view, that of Alfonso Columbato (played in the movie by Nicolas Cage) and “Birdy”, his childhood friend whose real name is never revealed. The text distinguishes the two, with Alfonso’s in normal type and Birdy’s in italics. Alfonso and Birdy seem to be an unlikely pair since they are opposites in every way (physical appearance, popularity with girls, sports prowess) yet are lifelong best friends.
Birdy and Alfonso start to breed pigeons, and they build five-star aviaries for them. Birdy grows to develop an obsession with the birds, and Alfonso notices that he is becoming birdlike in his appearance and behaviour. Birdy builds bird models, flying machines and he even exercises for hours each day to develop his arms for flying in the future.
After Alfonso abandons the hobby, Birdy takes it to the next level and beyond. Birdy decides to care for canaries and then sets up an elaborate aviary in his own bedroom as he develops a lucrative breeding program. Birdy grows as an adolescent with a bird’s-eye view of the world. Alfonso sets him up with a prom date and Birdy reluctantly agrees to go, much to the delight of his parents who are thrilled to see him take an interest in something and someone other than his birds. If only. The girl Alfonso sets him up with, Doris, has a reputation which is anything but virtuous and throws herself all over Birdy after the prom is over. Birdy, however, does not look at Doris as a sexual young woman but instead compares her physical appearance and behaviour to the attributes of his canaries. He gets out of having sex with Doris by claiming that he wants to save his virginity for his wife.
Birdy does, in a way, save himself for his “wife”. At night he has erotic dreams but not about girls. He fantasizes about one of his newest female canaries, Perta. They nest together and hatch several clutches of eggs. At this point late in the novel it gets boring, as Birdy confuses his reality as a young man with his version of reality being married to Perta. The chapter goes on far too long and furthermore, there is another dream within this dream which made it all the more confusing trying to distinguish between the two.
Both Alfonso and Birdy are drafted in WWII. This is changed to the Vietnam War in the movie, and I did not realize the time change until later on in the book, after noticing the primitive creature comforts each boy was living with. When I realized the novel was taking place in the 1940’s and not the 1970’s, it all made sense. Alfonso is disfigured in the war, and Wharton’s description of bodies sliced apart by bombs and skin peeling off and eyeballs popping out of sockets left me wincing on the bus with limbs restlessly probing the air. I haven’t read anything as gruesome since American Psycho. I read these war scenes while commuting and could not go on any further at times. The last thing I wanted was to faint while on a bus of all places.
Birdy suffers from wartime post-traumatic stress and is institutionalized. He believes he is a bird, squats like a bird and can only be fed like a baby bird. Alfonso is contacted by Birdy’s mother to see if he can help her son in any way. Alfonso, heavily bandaged and barely able to talk, reluctantly agrees to try to bring Birdy back to reality by triggering memories of the times they had spent together. This is the basis for the movie: the boys’ reminiscences while Alfonso and Birdy are in the mental institution.
I likely enjoyed Birdy more since I have become a bird owner like the lead character. The rituals that we must go through: cleaning cages, washing the toys, feeding and talking to the birds made me feel that it could have been me Wharton was writing about. That Birdy and me are both social misfits did not go unnoticed. The descriptions Wharton gives of canary breeding and bird habitat leave me with the impression that he himself must have first-hand knowledge of the subject. I want to borrow the library’s copy of the “Birdy” DVD and revisit the movie that I fell in love with twenty-five years ago.