Love does not conquer all in rural 1980s Kentucky in Fenton Johnson’s new novel

The Man Who Loved BirdsMan-Who-Loved-Birds-cover


Pros: characterizaton, evocation of place

Cons: ending

Fenton Johnson is an award-winning Kentucky-born writer whose third novel, The Man Who Loves Bird, follows by 22 years his second, Scissors, Paper, Rock (1994) (which appeared three years after his first, Crossing the River). He writes lush prose, somteimes bordering on the overwritten. I was interested in and convinced by his portrayal of charismatic marijuana grower, Johnny Faye, an illiterate veteran of the Vietname misadventure and of two people who become very enamored of him, Cistercians (Trappist) monk Brother Flavian, who has become restive with his increasingly capitalist community, and. Dr. Meena Chatterjee, a Bengali woman whose residence in the US is dependent on service in an underserved area. Her office/residence is in what was a (gas) filling station in what is presumably Bardstown, in the Kentucky Knobs, near the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.

Johnny Faye, the title character, is comfortable in his own skin and content despite being the target of ambitious local prosecutor Vetch (rhymes with retch) who has failed to secure a conviction from juries of Johnny Faye’s peers. Johnny Faye is more concerned that Officer Smith (the generic violent policeman with the bland family name) is going to kill or do permanent damage to his squirrely son, Matthew Mark.

Dr. Chaterjee (and Brother Flavian who is present and turns the boy over for the doctor) notices the welts on his back and knows that the vicious policeman also beats his wife. Her tentative status makes her afraid to buck local authorities, though she has a legal obligation to report the abuse. Johnny Faye urges her to protect the child, while dating Vetch and contemplating marrying her to cement her legal status. She is a more sympathetic character than I have made it sound, having fled the violence of Bangladesh’s formation, during which her parents were killed.

In that the novel is firmly based on a real case of licensed murder of a Kentucky marijuana grower, there is less suspense than there might be for a novel less tied to real events. The Reagan administration’s war on drugs, with a special focus on seizing the assets (land) of the Kentucky “cornbread mafia” is also firmly based on history, including the impunity of the side warring on drugs (the government). Other than what this reader knew before beginning reading the book, the endings are open (though one can easily plug in the later history of the “lawman” who got away with murder from the same historical records).

(©2016, Stephen O, Murray)

At a San Francisco Books Inc. appearance, Johnson said that he conceived the novel in 1971, when he was a seventeen-year-old Kentuckian looking forward to going to Stanford. He also said that he drew on speeches by Reagan, Cheney, and W for Vetch’s speechifying. He wrote about the 1971 murder in a New Yorker article, spent time (and interviewed monks) in the Abbey of Gethsemani (a basis for his book Keeping the Faith [2004], which also included interviews with Buddhist monks)i, and spent six months in Kolkata (Calcutta) getting the feel for Bengali desperation.

(The University of Kentucky Press has reissued Johnson’s first two novels along with publishing The Man Who Loved Birds.)


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Satire’s not dead. It just went home. To America that is.

America (The Book): A Citizen’s Guide To Democracy Inaction



Pros: Hilarious, offend-all satire that still holds up 12 years after publication.

Cons: Not designed to be read cover to cover so it doesn’t flow the way a traditional book does.

(Note: This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on

There was a time when I was a regular viewer of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. In the early 2000s, before it became the cultural institution that it was until fairly recently, it was (along with The Onion) my one-stop shop for satire of current events and American politics. It worked especially well during an era of war, terrorism, idiots in charge, media talking heads focused on entertainment disguised as news, corporate cronyism and so on.

So when I heard in the early fall of 2004, that Jon Stewart and the cast and writers of the show would be releasing a book, I was excited. Having read Stewart’s 1999 collection of comic essays “Naked Pictures Of Famous People” I knew the man could write well and write funny. So I expected to see more of that hilarious Daily Show satire in book form. Upon buying America The Book, I was surprised to discover that in addition to skewering the news, it also skewers sacred cows throughout American history as well as the very concept of high school textbooks itself.

And I do literally mean high school textbooks. From the moment you open the cover of this 228 page tome, you will chuckle with amusement at the precise replication of one of those spaces for you to write your name and the condition of the book (Good fair poor bad) at the time you received it. But right below the conditions we see written: “We are fully aware that Dick Hertz, IP Freely and Haywood Jablome are not real people so please exclude them.” The book doesn’t stop lampooning textbooks there as it includes lots of charts, graphs, photo sections and end of chapter questions throughout.

This structural approach might be off-putting for some readers. It doesn’t quite flow the way a normal book does. But this wasn’t really designed to be read cover to cover.

It would’ve been easy to do a book full of cheap humor and cheap shots. Yet Stewart and his co- writers effectively alternate between biting satire and cheap comedy. For instance, in the president chapter, we see several charts ranking presidents according to various reasons such as fattest and best facial hair (the latter list includes Lincoln, James A Garfield and a Clinton with a beard Photoshopped on). Right below the facial hair chart is a commentary on “our worst president…Warren G Harding”. The blurb purports to go into the reasons why Harding sucked, before explaining that those reasons have been thoroughly documented in the annals of presidential history, thus making a good case for why reading history is important and providing plenty of laughs along the way. (For the record, the piece goes on to explain that Harding’s presidency sucked because it was a taint “the anatomical area between the anus and the testicles”.

A comment a friend made a couple days ago about how the rise of 24-hour news channels may have been the worst thing to ever happen to the American media inspire me to go back to the chapter on the media. The chapter opens with a picture of Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the movie “Network” and on the second one the opening of the chapter titled “The Media: Democracy’s Guardian Angel”. Turn the page and you are immediately confronted by a picture of various famous news people along with network logos and on the ensuing page, the REAL beginning of the chapter, which is actually titled “The Media: Democracy’s Valiant Vulgarians”. Later on in that chapter we see a flow chart shows the course of the American media from its founding to today. This chart shows how Time Magazine begat people which “turned the cause of investigative journalism into the search for the sexiest man alive”. The chart then shows that People begat Us Magazine, which answers any questions unanswered by People. Us begets Instyle which Begets Lucky “a magazine for retards about shopping”.

The prime problem with a lot of topical satire is that it has a sell-by date. Consider movies that specialize in it. There are a good many that do not last over the years (consider how totally out of date the 2006 movie American Dreamz, with it’s satiric shots at George W Bush and American idol, seems only ten years later). Only a select few, most notably Dr. Strangelove and Network, hold up just as well over the years.

Fortunately, America The Book still holds up. In fact, like the aforementioned Network, a lot fo it is even more relevant today in an era where reality TV culture dominates nearly every aspect of American life and a buffoon from one of those shows is the leading candidate for president. So this is one book that can still be read and enjoyed today. While The Daily Show itself may be a shadow of its former greatness, this books works alternately as a reminder of when it truly was the place to go to laugh at an increasingly ridiculous world and a good source of laughter in these harsh times.