The Bird Saviors, by William J. Cobb
When a dust storm engulfs her Colorado town and pink snow blankets the streets, a heartbreaking decision faces Ruby Cole, a girl who counts birds. She must either abandon her baby or give in to her father, whom she nicknames Lord God, and marry a man more than twice her age who already has two wives. She chooses to run, which sets in motion an interlocking series of actions and reactions, upending the lives of an equestrian police officer, pawnshop riffraff, a disabled war vet, Nuisance Animal destroyers, and a grieving ornithologist who is studying the decline of bird populations. All the while, a growing criminal enterprise moves from cattle rustling to kidnapping to hijacking fuel tankers and murder as events spin out of control in a world in which the social fabric and economic structures seem on the verge of falling apart.
Set in a time of economic turmoil, virus fears, climate change, fundamentalist cults and illegal immigrant hardship, The Bird Saviors is a visionary story of defiance, anger, compassion and unexpected love, in which a young woman ultimately struggles to free herself from her domineering father, to raise her daughter in the chaos of the New West, and to seize an opportunity to become something greater herself. In this brilliant new novel, William Cobb offers an elemental and timely vision of resilience and personal survival, but—most of all—of honest hope.
This is, perhaps, the vaguest book I have ever read. Set in ambiguous circumstances and populated by indistinct, archetypal characters who seem to have no existence outside of the novel, The Bird Saviors is a pretty murky affair. Still, it is not without its charms.
For me, the novel’s greatest strength is its dialogue, which manages to be both realistic and compelling. When characters were speaking, I was never bored. The descriptive prose is more hit-or-miss for me. It is beautiful and interesting in places, but it also felt tedious at times. There are too many similes, and even though some of them work well, some of them are patently ridiculous (“Her virtue is prickly as cactus but her nipples are like velvet sombreros.” As a reader, what is my response to that sentence supposed to be, other than a sort of horrified incredulity at the fact that someone actually wrote it?).
Most of the characters seem to be stereotypes instead of individuals (over-bearing father; sleazy pawn shop owner; “enlightened” academic; free-spirited teenage girl; big, reticent American Indian who makes cave art). This makes them too familiar and too distant at the same time. Though they have the signs of individual histories, there’s no sense that these characters are people with things that happened to them outside of the events in The Bird Saviors. This made it difficult, though not impossible, for me to empathize with them. I do think Cobb did a good job of introducing a character (Lord God) as an antagonist but then revealing him to be more complex and sympathetic as the book continued.
I think the weakest aspect of this novel is its setting. Not the fact that it’s Pueblo, CO (I’m from Colorado, and of course this would be set in Pueblo), but that it’s also supposed to be somewhat dystopian. The strength of dystopian fiction is the world-building and the circumstances that could only arise in these worlds. With this novel, there is nothing in it that requires the novel to be set in the future (even the near future), and the exact circumstances of the novel are so ill-defined that its supposed setting was a distracting element instead of an asset. Is Cobb just trying to take advantage of the current dystopian trend in fiction? If so, this is a weak attempt. (And since everyone’s already over the whole global warming hysteria, incorporating that doesn’t help either.)
Anyway, this book reminds me of the work of Cormac McCarthy, though The Bird Saviors is not as sharp, not as finely-tuned. Like I said, it has its problems, but it is not without charm. If you like your fiction with spare prose and plenty of ambiguity, this might be your cuppa.
Disclaimer: I was given a review copy by the publisher.