“Don’t just disappear on us.” This line is delivered in 1970 by Jack Flynn to his brother Trevor, a veteran who has never quite recovered from WWII, but it could have been said by, or to, any of the characters in Laura Harrington’s powerful new Vietnam novel, A Catalog of Birds (Europa, July 2017). In fact, it could be the national slogan of the era. Everyone and everything is disappearing through the casualties of war, misogyny, imperialism, and environmental assault, an interconnected maelstrom of the culture. Young soldiers are disappearing in combat, young women in the local area and beyond are disappearing as body dumps by the side of the road, and birds are disappearing from pesticide poisoning. The seeds of this desolation were planted at the country’s bloody birth. Geneva, the city in upstate New York where the Flynns live, sits on the ground ripped from the Seneca nation on orders from President George Washington in 1779: the longhouses destroyed, the orchards cut to the ground and burned, the people starved to death, all to punish them for their loyalty to the British during the Revolutionary War. The American soldiers were in awe of the land and the community. And then they destroyed it.
This is a book of multiple perspectives, but Harrington, who is the author of Alice Bliss, another war-centered novel, focuses mainly on the tender relationship between two of Jack Flynn’s children, the smart, sensitive teenage Nell, and her older brother Billy. At the novel’s opening, Billy has just returned from Vietnam, burned and battered, unable, like so many others, to reenter his old life, while people around him expect him to be thankful he has a life at all. Billy has always been enamored with birds, a passion he shares with his sister, who volunteers to document mercury levels in their blood. When they were growing up, Billy studied birds so closely he could draw them, speak their language, and absorb every minute detail of their song. He wanted so much to fly like them that he enlisted in the army to learn to pilot helicopters, not realizing he was being trained to be a bird of prey. His letters from Vietnam to Nell begin with observations of nature, all birds and rice paddies, but over time his words evolve into fiery destruction before he stops altogether. The guilt is killing him. He tells Nell: “The first time I saw napalm I thought—you’ll laugh at me—I thought about the birds. The ibis and Himalayan swiftlets, Oriental skylarks. Birds, when below me people are burning.”
Billy’s extensive injuries, both inside and out, prevent him from connecting with nature on his return, a rather devastating outcome, since in this book, if there is any healing to be had, it is nature that offers it. Billy’s father, unlike his Uncle Trevor, was able to finally rein in his own war pain through restoring the orchards of Geneva, planting apple trees. Yet, like Odysseus, it took him ten long years of misery to come home from the war. Nell stands helpless before her family’s pain. She also stands helpless at the loss of her best friend, Megan, Billy’s girlfriend. Megan, who was, in her own father’s words, “hardly big enough to reach the pedals to drive the tractor,” has simply disappeared. Suspended between presumed dead and found dead, she is missing in action. As Nell sourly reflects, one day Megan will disintegrate into “that girl.” As in “Did they ever find that girl?” And she’s just one of many young women in the area, and in America, who were falling by the wayside, never to be seen again. Megan’s disappearance is probably the work of a local serial killer, but there were so many runaways in those turbulent years that the police don’t do much more than shrug.
Even Geneva, the city itself, is disappearing. The factories are closing, the stores are boarded up, and the army recruitment billboard downtown says The Army Wants to Join You. “The most inane slogan ever devised,” thinks Billy. And yet it is true. The war has become of part of anyone who is touched by it, which is everyone. The local priest, against church orders, holds peace vigils in honor of Geneva’s own Roger Allen LaPorte, who set himself on fire at the UN in 1965 to protest the war. The ROTC building at Hobart College in town gets bombed. And still the war goes on. It is in the blood. It is certainly in Billy, in the worst possible way, and he can’t get rid of it. Harrington asks the hard questions of war, addressing the complicity of every citizen. Billy struggles with the knowledge that he had “grabbed what he wanted with both hands. Flying. The war. Intoxicated in the air. Every time he walked across the tarmac, climbed into the bird. All he’d ever wanted.” His parents feel responsible, too, for their son’s decision to serve, “the endless conversations around the dinner table where they found themselves arguing against their own self-interest.” Harrington is compassionate with these damaged people, but she doesn’t let anyone off easy. Not the reader, least of all. We are all held responsible.
A catalog of birds, a catalog of loss. “You want to save them,” Jack says to Nell, of the returning vets. “And you can’t.” He can’t even save the dying Elm trees that surround their home. In language that is both lyrical and horrifying, A Catalog of Birds questions what it means to be an American, and offers what can be salvaged, or hoped, for a future.