February Read of the Month: “Kiss of the Jewel Bird,” by Dale Cramer

Dale Cramer

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

All things being equal: Possessed by spiritual dissatisfaction, or a hunger for knowledge or mastery, Faust makes a pact with the devil. It’s an old legend, of course, with tales told as early as the 1500s, and the stuff of drama, Marlowe and Goethe, and then Thomas Mann.

The Faustian bargain….

Or maybe the usual lack of direction in a Thomas Pynchon tale, another chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations, deconstructing a reader’s desire to understand sentimental surrealism.

What can one do for present gains without regard for future cost or consequence? But suppose, also, one takes this, an old folktale, and flips it on its head? The issue is still the same, wealth, fame, a certain kind of power, but the bargain is made less with Satan or a lesser demon; the figure of Mephistopheles has now become a chicken, a comic twist, a surreal rainbow, dreaming again this night of a peacock’s tail and making no more or less sense.

But still a cautionary tale. Be careful about what you wish for.

Dickie Frye is a Southern good old boy, rural, a slang term pejoratively suggesting someone kin to the Dukes of Hazard. His Southern world, however, is about to open itself into a much larger world than that of cheap beer, NASCAR, and soft drawls.

But the novel’s first chapter is not the Southern world; it’s New York, the world’s literary center. Fletcher Carlyle has just been wheeled into Weatherhaven, strapped to a gurney “and heavily sedated.” Carlyle is the stalking favorite of the paparazzi and he’s just slaughtered a chicken on the hood of a BMW “in the middle lane of Central Park West . . . . sunlight glittering off the butcher knife in his raised fist, wild eyes burning through rivulets of greasy hair, teeth grinding against themselves . . . . [one] downy feather snagged in his beard and the faint comet of blood across the threadbare bathrobe . . . . The wrath of Moses gone mad.”

Fletcher Carlyle, Noble Prize winning author, international stardom, is now a pale, doughy caricature fetched up in front of psychiatrist Anton Kohl’s desk; the two form an unlikely Pynchon-like pair in this improbable novel. But the picture is complicated since “sophisticate” Carlyle speaks to Kohl with an “unvarnished drawl [giving] the impression of a lowborn Southern redneck.”

He’s not Fletcher Carlyle; he’s Dickie Frye. And on a fortuitous day years before the death of the chicken, his Jeep wouldn’t start and so he takes the Mazda, “a duct-taped taillight, a muffler held on with baling wire, two slick tires, and a hundred and sixty-two thousand miles on it.” On the road, Dickie settles behind a truckload of chickens, the pungent miasma wafting into his nostrils, that and diesel exhaust. Normally he made it a rule not to drink while driving but this is an emergency. Fetching a cold beer from the cooler next to him on the front seat, he takes the first long pull on the cold beer. Leaning forward, he catches a glimpse of a chicken crate with two broken bars. One of the inmates is trying to break loose, first its head, and then a wing, popping out of the crate like a cork under pressure.

By some miracle the chicken escaped and came down “right through Frye’s open sunroof” before settling on the headrest of the passenger seat. One tough bird. And then it’s home with Dickie Frye.

What comes next in the novel is a modest remake of an old Platonic dialogue, if one can have a dialogue with a chicken. Crito seems to be the name of the chicken. It’s not an exact dialogue, a paraphrase, so much as it is a means for the chicken to become the purveyor and conveyor of literary excellence. Cheaply bought: cigarettes and scotch.

Point being: Dickie Frye has ambitions to become a writer; at nights he will “peck” away at one thing or another but without wise or expert advice. Between the two, then, Dickie Frye/Fletcher Carlyle and Crito/chicken, a sort of Faustian contract is formed, one which will bring Frye/Fletcher fame and fortune, all from masterpieces of literature rivaling the best the world has thought, seen, and known, works even Mathew Arnold or Thomas Carlyle might have admired.

And thus the chicken, Crito, nurtures and educates his surrogate, Dickie, even if the form of the “dialogue” between the two is via a computer keyboard. Crito’s method is pecking the keyboard often through the dark hours of the night until dawn when he sleeps.

But who is he? This chicken?

Well, if the “data” is to be believed, he’s a fallen courtier-priest of some sort from Mesopotamia/Sumeria, perhaps from as early as 10,000 BC or as late as 2,000 BC, and doomed. One wonders why, except historically it’s very likely true that libraries were extant in those early times, which means the chicken owns a sophisticated literary knowledge.

The fable, then, of Cramer’s book argues, if that’s the right term, that this fallen courtier whose origins date to the advent of literature returns to life again and again and again as a bird, sometimes elegant, sometimes less elegant, more so when the quirkiness requires too much suspension of ordinary belief unless one believes in time loops.

Thus in Cramer’s “romp,” as it were, or “cackling,” a reader must necessarily suspend ordinary belief; this “fable” possesses all the ridiculousness one might desire, a bit like Marge Simpson becoming a novelist in the episode “Diatribe of a Mad Housewife.” It’s witty and improbable, like Wittgenstein on steroids, and a convoluted puzzle that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre category unless Ground Hog Day has invented a new type of Thomas Pynchon-crossroad classification, a Faustian deal with the devil, now a deal with a chicken.

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