Georgeann Packard’s new novel, Paint the Bird (The Permanent Press), reveals as did her first book, Fall Asleep Forgetting (a finalist for two Lambda Literary Awards in 2010), her skill as a poet as well as a constructor of original narrative.
In fact, one of her poems furnishes the book’s epigraph: “to keep faith/to hold fast to illusory things/to chase an ill-defined and evasive love/to attempt to render these/in color, shape, a pretend reality/is to paint the bird/the one in flight/fluid, ensouled, rapturously formless/confined by memory/impossible to paint.” Another epigraph, which opens chapter one, extends the idea of questing for illusive connections, and implicitly sounds the book’s theme: how to live with grief and loss of conviction: “A writer writes to understand what he is thinking. A painter, one like me, paints to unearth what he is feeling…then must find a way to bury again the pain he exhumes.” The observation belongs to Abraham Darby, one the novel’s central characters. He’s a noted painter, a loner. The irony of the remark is that a literary artist, the author, puts it in the mouth of a visual artist, and one of the pleasures of Paint the Bird is seeing how both words and images embody the theme. The medium is not the message here, the message is the message, and it proves heartwarming.
As the story opens, Darby is in a Greenwich Village bar, eyeing an attractive black woman whom he will soon bed. The next day it’s revealed that his estranged son has just died and he will speak briefly at the funeral. He asks the woman to wear his ex-wife’s dress and go with him. Their chance coupling strikes both of them as intuitively natural. Sarah Obadias is 69, to Darby’s 70-something. She’s a minister and has left behind, almost in a trance, her husband, her daughter, her flock, her trust in God. Darby and Sarah are not the only ones, however, suffering from loss of faith, “be it faith in God, a person, an institution,” in relationships gay or straight.
Darby’s son, the beautiful Yago, is dead as the story opens, but he reappears as a vision to some of the characters—to Johnny his lover, to their seven-year-old son, Angelo, and, independently, to Darby and Sarah. Reportedly, Yago died of heart failure, but it’s clear that the originating problem is AIDS. Johnny, who had a woman friend conceive a child for him and Yago, is close to despair but puts up a front for Angelo. Yago’s mother (and Darby’s ex-wife), a flighty, promiscuous bisexual and also a painter, completes the assortment of odd characters in this odd tale. The surprise is that everything seems to work—people are like this, life is like this—unpredictable, accidental, surprising, comic relief sometimes modifying tragedy. Sarah tells Johnny he’s got a great singing voice, to which he replies, “Well, I’m a gay man. You know, glee club, piano bars, show tunes.” She counters: “Well, I’m a black woman. You know, gospel hymns, freedom marches, show tunes.”
The author, a full-time resident of Mattituck lived for many years in Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn and, as she says, “hence my love for Johnny and Yago’s neighborhood.” Darby has a studio in the city but also a house on the North Fork, and the Greenport Saturday night bar scene in winter—“when unexplained things can happen in small places”—is well suited to a climactic confrontation that shows that family by choice can matter more than blood ties, and that faith, “rara avis,” as the epigraph has it, that rare bird, can take strange flight—away and back again. Packard writes that we are all “challenged” at some point by loss of conviction, and we all think we have “more time [than we do] to figure these things out.” Unobtrusively she works in the religious calendar, starting the story “The Second Day After Ash Wednesday” and giving Darby a startling resolution that takes place on Easter Sunday, as he finds himself “Awash in art. Bankrupt in emotion.” And then, no longer bankrupt.