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the lord god bird

29 september 2013

My public library listed among its holdings a baseball novel called The Dog Sox by Russell Hill, so I went over to the shelf to do my bibliographic duty. But the back of The Dog Sox noted that Hill was the author of the novella The Lord God Bird, which sat right next to it and drew me off the baseball-fiction scent entirely. That's saying something, but if there's any kind of book I'll read more readily than one about baseball, it's a book about the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker.

The Lord God Bird is set after the Second World War, at the cusp of the Ivory-Bill's disappearance into extinction. The narrator is a handy high-school dropout with dreams of becoming a taxidermist. He and his girlfriend Robin decide to make a pilgrimage to the swamps of Arkansas and Louisiana in hopes of seeing one of the great birds before it vanishes.

And then things get weird. No, things have gotten weird while Jake (the narrator) and Robin are still home in suburban Chicagoland. Jake loves skinning and dissecting birds, and Robin – petite, wiry, and athletic – is the nearest thing to a people-sized bird you can imagine. He loves looking at her naked and doing some visual comparative anatomy between her musculature and a bird's. It turns her on too. You may think you've encountered every shade of eroticism that literature has to offer, and writers will still come up with new ones.

Once the young couple are in the South, what better way to attract the Ivory-Bill than to dress Robin up like its mate? Her boyish figure seems to work best as a male Ivory-Bill, so she grows her hair into a crest, dyes it red, makes a cape of crow feathers – and legends of a five-foot-high woodpecker begin to circulate through the bayous.

It seems wrong to spoil a thoroughly original plot by recounting the rest of it, but suffice to say that The Lord God Bird accumulates shootings, poisonous snakes, Afro-Indian shamans, lynch mobs, and crusty old sheriffs. It's Southern Gothic, sure, but it's also lyrical and ornithological. And it's absolutely splendid and unique.

Hill, Russell. The Lord God Bird. New York: Caravel [Pleasure Boat], 2009.