June Read of the Month: “Song of the Vagabond Bird,” by Terry Kay

Terry Kay

Terry Kay

Reviewed by Donna Meredith

Novels about male bonding are fairly unusual—unless the band of brothers emerges from war. Armed conflict plays no part in Terry Kay’s latest novel, though the major characters are all wounded. Not by guns or I.E.D.’s. By women. Lost love. Crushing guilt.

Georgia Hall of Fame writer Terry Kay has written fifteen works of fiction, yet Song of the Vagabond Bird is my first encounter with his novels—and reading it was such a delightful experience I wonder how it is I haven’t found his works before now. The novel felt wholly original rather than one of those rehashed plots so common today.

That elusive quality called voice pulls you into this story, the voice of an unnamed protagonist going by the pseudonym Bloodworth. He is one of five men chosen to visit Neal’s Island, all hoping to be cured of their obsessions under the guidance of unorthodox psychiatrist Carson X. Willlingham. But is Carson X. a miracle worker or a madman in need of saving himself? As Bloodworth points out, “The people who play with the mind are impossible to understand.”

Hiding real names and occupations is one of Carson X’s rules while these men search for hidden truths. Anonymity allows an unusual degree of true confessions among men from different backgrounds.

The others Carson X. hopes to cure go by the pseudonyms of Barkeep, Max, Menlo, and Godsick. Each of the five men is obsessed with a woman, but for varied reasons.

Bloodworth’s fiancée Kalee died in a car wreck on the night of what was supposed to be their engagement party. Overcome with grief and regret, he can’t function. Both Bloodworth’s partner at work and his psychiatrist—the real Bloodworth, whose name our protagonist co-opts while on the island—encourage him to try the ten-day cure offered by Carson X.

Gradually we learn the circumstances behind the others’ obsessions—and we learn Carson X. has a fixation of his own.

The dialogue sometimes smacks of the kind of sexism you find when men are alone together. Witness this diatribe by Barkeep, the smartass of the group: “They’re still broads. Broads, pal. Women. Females. Friends to the snake. And in their hearts they’re all alike. Full of the blood they’ve sucked out of some good, hard-working man.”

But you can almost forgive him the way one of the other guys does:

“Regina? That one’s easy to solve. A good hit man,” Barkeep said dryly.

Menlo chuckled. He looked at Barkeep. “You know, I like you,” he said simply.

“Why? I’m an ass,” Barkeep replied proudly.

“Yes, you are,” Menlo said. “But you’re likable.”

Though Kay’s dialogue sparkles, the adverbs he tacks on the speaker tags seem unnecessary. Readers could easily pick up on their own whether the words were said dryly, simply, or proudly.

Bloodworth’s recovery progresses for many reasons. First, Carson X.’s bizarre theatrics and unconventional practices shake up the status quo. No less important, the retreat from the hustle of the mainland offers solitude and what Bloodworth refers to as the textures of the island. The song of the bird. Ghosts that fish along the shore or invite themselves into the kitchen. The deer that visit the cabins daily. And then there’s the relationship Bloodworth forges with Inga, after meeting her in the local grocery. She, too, is struggling to recover from lost love.

A significant part of the novel consists of letters Bloodworth is writing to the deceased Kalee. They become part of his therapy. The letters contain exquisite lyrical prose. They expose a man’s soul in an intimate and lovely way.

Bloodworth comes up with the key to each person finding his own peace. It must be through honesty, which he defines as “being willing to correct a proposed truth or a protective lie.” The novel slowly unfolds the self-deception that fetters each man to his past. I found myself dreading what secrets might come out about Kalee and Bloodworth. Had either betrayed the other? Did her ex-husband have anything to do with her accident? Terry Kay did an admirable job of spooling out the suspense.

We are far more used to “relationship” novels about women, what we call serious “women’s fiction,” as opposed to romance novels. Song of the Vagabond Bird reminds us that men experience intense love, loss, and guilt too—even to the point of obsession.

Song of the Vagabond Bird was published by Mercer University Press. Other works to Kay’s credit include The Greats of Cuttercane, Bogmeadow’s Wish, The Book of Marie, To Dance with the White Dog, The Valley of Light, Taking Lottie Home, The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene, Shadow Song, The Runaway, Dark Thirty, After Eli, and The Year the Lights Came On. Kay has also been a sports writer and film and theater reviewer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a public relations executive, and a corporate officer.

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