The self in perpetual motion

A review of "Spirit Bird: Stories" by Kent Nelson.

 

The Spirit Bird: Stories
Kent Nelson
318 pages, $24.95.
University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014.

The Spirit Bird: Stories, winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, is Kent Nelson’s latest collection of short fiction. Nelson’s stories feature diverse protagonists — a young single mother, a rabble-rousing Southern lawyer, a restless empty-nester — as well as an unusually vivid sense of place — the chile fields of New Mexico, the resort towns of Colorado, suburban Seattle — that establishes the land as an essential character in the stories. The people in Spirit Bird are trying to break out of their lives, and they share one major trait: dissatisfaction. They’re exploring, pushing boundaries, looking seriously at their own lives and asking, “Really? What now?”

In “Race,” Hakim, a Kansan of Egyptian heritage, is a glassblower living in Colorado. He is middle-aged, divorced, misses his daughter, uses his talent to make tourist baubles, and is viewed with suspicion by many locals even though he’s been a member in good standing of the local chamber of commerce for 15 years. After Hakim collapses during a half-marathon and is revived, strangers seek him out — what did he see? What did he learn? “I learned how easy it was to die, but how hard it was to go back to the beginning,” he tells them.

In “La Mer de l’Ouest,” Scott Atherton is a white South Carolina lawyer whose new clients, a black couple, want a straw buyer for a house in an exclusive white enclave. Atherton is a liberal in a town where he’s tolerated by the local conservative establishment — until he crosses a line and becomes an activist. His wife accuses him of “glamorizing criminal behavior” but he defends himself by replying, “The Boston Tea Party was a crime. So was Rosa Parks’s getting on that bus. … Did we not have an obligation to resist what we thought was evil?”

A juvenile Salvin’s albatross in a rare sighting west of Half Moon Bay, California.
Courtesy Ron Wolf

Adult siblings with childhood grievances spend a weekend divvying up their father’s possessions in “Seeing Desirable Things,” a scenario guaranteed to end in catastrophe. Allen, contemplating birds on the beach in the aftermath, stares at one and wonders: “How did it know of danger? ... How did it know where to go in winter, when to leave, how to navigate?” Would that we humans could know those things, too.

Birds in this collection represent the self in perpetual motion, forever seeking. Lauren, the birder in the title story, asks what might be the question that underlies the volume: “When the spirit is always on the move, how can it settle?” Nelson seems to suggest that the answer is found in seeking dignity and a measure of social justice — doing your part to create an even field on which to play the game.