The World Within Sight of the Lighthouse : THE BIRD ARTIST, <i> By Howard Norman (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $20; 320 pp.)</i>


“We do not die of being sick; we die of being alive,” Montaigne wrote, and in Howard Norman’s brief and measureless new novel, four violent deaths are as lively as a convivial meal, sexual passion, the flight of birds, a painter’s urge to portray them, a hunter’s to slaughter them and the wavering wake of fishing dories hailing each other through the Newfoundland fog.

These things are high-colored and intense, and they are bubbles. Like the fishermen and their boats, the characters and their stories in “The Bird Artist” set out on courses, but their actual movement meanders on a sea that is enigmatic and still as a whole and--wave by wave--playful.

If modern physics builds mountains out of absurd dottles of positively and negatively charged matter, Norman’s metaphysics devises large human affairs out of frivolously and unstably charged particles of tragedy and comedy. His humanity’s Big Bang was a burst of laughter that time gravely floats through the eons.


Seven years ago, Norman published “The Northern Lights,” set among the Inuits of upper Canada. It was a magical romance, told with a restraint and lightness that ensured that neither the reader nor the remote society where it took place was in the least manipulated. It was dazzling, though it sagged somewhat when its Anglo protagonist, growing up, was brought back from the north to live for a while in Montreal.

Unlike most second books that follow a brilliant first one, “The Bird Artist” is an improvement. It is as light and magical, it is more searching and suggestive, and it has no flaw at all. It is one of the most perfect and original American novels that I have read in years; and the only trouble with saying so is that, when extracted for a blurb, such words distend the book’s witty economy.

“The Bird Artist” recounts in the first-person the growing-up of Fabian Vas in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, early in this century. From childhood he drew and painted birds; and as an adult he makes most of his living doing it, along with a little shipyard carpentry. His story is dramatic, even melodramatic, but it is not told that way. The voices that Norman gives him and the other characters are reflective and deflected: by turns aroused and relinquishing, wry and lyrical, comic and homely. As with John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera,” a libretto of passion and violence takes on a quizzical serenity, set--we can all but hear them--to a disconcerting variety of lilting and raffish tunes.

“My name is Fabian Vas,” the narrator begins, using the matter-of-fact airiness of Huck Finn or Ishmael to announce a story that may go anywhere at all. “You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself.”

So we know what happened and who did it right from the start. Yet Fabian’s account has the mystery and tension of a novel of suspense all the way through. It is the mystery of how people behave, of how life treats them, and of the antic calligraphy that quite disrupts the way you would expect the markings of life and behavior to go. Since this is so much more than a genre book, the mystery is not dispelled at the end; only appeased.

Fabian is the son of Alaric, a restless, dreamy woman, and Orkney, a hard-working carpenter and bird-hunter who has yoked a limitless heart to a series of narrow and devoted purposes. With all of the book’s characters, in fact, the fundamental transaction is the friction between their essential limitlessness and the limits they live in. The result is never frustration--that would make the kind of realistic novel that Norman has no notion of writing--but a rainbow of unexpected colors.

The story, essentially, tells how Fabian is taught to abandon safety and take possession of his limitlessness; not by cracking open the world of Witless Bay but by cracking himself open while making some perceptible dents on that world. The transformation will come from a series of joyful, disastrous or merely bemusing encounters in which he experiences, in doses ranging from tiny to overwhelming, the limitlessness of everyone else.

On the large side there is his stormy passion for Margaret, the daughter of the mail-boat captain. A precarious Beatrice composed of sex, vitality, fury and impenetrable schemes, she will alternately lead and goad him through his journey. There is Alaric’s affair with Botho during her husband Orkney’s long absence to harvest birds. There is Orkney’s return, and an explosion of grief and shame that will propel Fabian to the lighthouse to shoot Botho with the gun Margaret has providently lent him.

There is Fabian’s flight with his mother to Halifax to undergo a marriage she had arranged and he had been unable to resist. It lasts 10 minutes, cut short by the pursuing constable who had been too caught up by the romance of the ceremony to intervene until it was over. There is the comically eccentric criminal hearing of Fabian, Margaret and Alaric, conducted back in Witless Bay by the same constable. There are other deaths, more or less by mischance, but all with an element of the violence that is part of the lovely complexity of the characters.

Fabian will always be a bird artist--”God gave me a small talent to help clarify my world,” he says in a moment of crisis--but by the end, he will use the small talent for something large: a mural that recapitulates everything that has happened. It is a mural of modest figures, each with a glint of magic no more pretentious or unnatural than their shoe-buckles. It is one of the marks of Norman’s talent that he can make the description of a painting move us both as a dramatic climax and a reconciliation.

Aside from the large limitlessnesses there are the small ones. There is the librarian who first gave him paints and paper; trained in England and washed up in Witless Bay, she keeps the books in her parlor and has each card inscribed--distant oceans of romance--with the outline of a woman in a bathtub. There is Kelb, who walks the stage as the implacable instrument of justice and whose backstage resembles a garden with beehives. There is ancient Helen Twombly, who lived respectably and wildly, and rows herself out in the fog to die; after arranging with Botho to douse his lighthouse lantern. Take hold of any of Norman’s characters and the other end seems to stretch to infinity.

Margaret, who chooses Fabian when he is 13 and she, 17, is the most dangerously winning character in the book. As a child she would fill the house with lit candles when her father was away on the mail boat. Grown older, her candles are bigger and hotter; with no details furnished, she is formidably arousing. She is a Calamity Jane, a Cleopatra and a young woman striving to get things to work. Her father, Enoch--part Beothuk Indian--is quieter but equally memorable; the wisest and funniest character in the book. Fabian’s own father, Orkney, starts quiet and repressed and, in a letter written long after he leaves home, turns into a giant. Even at home, soothing Alaric who must get up at four to make breakfast for him and Fabian, he placates distinctively:

“We’ll be father and son ghosts at the table. Just set out the coffee, mugs, scones. You’ll see bites disappearing. The table’ll be cleared. The door’ll open. The door’ll close. You can go right back to sleep.”

“The Bird Artist” has elements of fable and touches of magic realism. What is remarkable is the restraint and purpose with which Norman treats them. He does not decree moral or magic; he uses them the way they show themselves in our lives: as odd echoes, premonitions, surges of discovery, epiphanies. “The Bird Artist” is essentially a classic story of a young man coming to terms with himself, with his art and with his life. All that is splendid and spectacular in the book is simply light, magically employed, to seek out what is real.