The Spectator Bird
By Wallace Stegner
Read Oct 2021
Joe Allston was a successful literary agent in New York City for many years. About eight years prior to the start of this story he and his wife moved to a house outside of San Francisco after he retired. Apparently, they were pretty active socially initially and enjoyed showing off their property and Ruth’s excellent cooking. They have started losing friends to the usual reasons associated with retirement and have become more withdrawn from society. At the same time, Joe has started experiencing the usual aches and pains that accompany aging.
One day they receive a postcard from Astrid, a Countess from whom they rented rooms in her apartment while in Denmark 20 years ago after the death of their son (accident? Suicide? Not clear…) and a serious illness Joe suffered. Initially Joe doesn’t tell Ruth they received the postcard but does later that evening when he brings journals from that time into their bedroom where they spend their evenings reading and watching TV. Ruth convinces Joe to read the journals aloud although both of them anticipate the experience will incur some pain for both of them. Ruth is interested in “getting the pebble out of her shoe” regarding what really happened between Joe and Astrid.
The book alternates between sessions reading the journal (with its extensive details including dialog…) and present day (~1976) in which Joe narrates their various events, including a visit from a former client who is a famous Italian author, and Joe’s thoughts about his current physical and mental state.
While it’s clear the “current” and “past” sections both occurred in the past (no cell phones, no computer searches but rather investigations using “Who’s Who” and other written documents in a library) much is quite universal and timeless. As someone who has been retired about seven years and who also moved to an enviable lake house, this reader found Joe’s comments very close to home at times. Certainly, the story of their trip to Denmark provides some startling details but the most relevant aspects for this reader are about Joe’s review of his current situation and how he came to it. His comments about never really choosing his path but rather just bumping along it are quite raw and relevant to many of us. In addition, Stegner’s language and descriptions of their current and past environments and actions are exquisite. It’s quite easy to understand why this book won the National Book Award when it was published. This reader’s advice: read and savor.