Song of the Vagabond Bird
Terry Kay
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Buy *Song of the Vagabond Bird* by Terry Kayonline

Song of the Vagabond Bird
Terry Kay
Mercer University Press
344 pages
September 2014
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Terry Kay is a master storyteller--readers of To Dance with the White Dog or any other of his varied fiction works can attest to that. And those who have viewed the numerous Hallmark Hall of Fame movies based on his novels also know that Kay crafts superb tales. I have read almost all of Kay's bound works, including his nonfiction essays (Special K), and one of his juvenile fiction books (To Whom the Angel Spoke). I still have a video of "To Dance with the White Dog," the Hallmark production starring Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy. I continue to read this author partly because I was so impressed by his first book, The Year the Lights Came On, and partly because I was so impressed by the author himself, who taught an undergraduate writing course I took in college (in the nature of full disclosure).

Kay utilizes a fable-like style in Song of the Vagabond Bird, like he has in many of his other books. I delighted in reading expertly written passages as the characters slowly revealed both themselves and life truths. I admit that as a female, I wasn't entirely sure I would like this story about a group of men undergoing a peculiar therapy to help them overcome obsessions with the opposite sex. But my enjoyment grew with each chapter, both with the arc of the narrative and with Kay's adept phrasing:

"A smile wrinkled into his face like a deep erosion."

"The deer traveled the island like a time-crier."

"Pain fills time..."

The book reveals how five distressed men gather on Neal's Island for ten days, enduring the supposedly therapeutic methods of Carson X. Willingham. But, as is typically the case with this author's works, the story veers into the unpredictably charming. Since the men have been instructed by their leader to assume pseudonyms, the main character is known to us only as his chosen persona, Tyler Bloodworth. This is an ironic twist since Bloodworth is actually the name of the protagonist's psychiatrist (the professional who recommended this uncommon course of treatment). The question becomes: Will Kay's Tyler choose to wrest his life back from the grief of losing his beloved fiancé, Kalee?

The men have also been told to adopt other professions but to be truthful about all other details of their lives. Using a physical exercise to illustrate his point, Carson X. emphasizes:

"From now until you leave, you must remember that you are responsible for everyone else. You must think of truth as being the grip. If you do not share the truth, you will lose your grip and you will cause the rest of us to fall."
I couldn't help but think of the old adage: "No man is an island." It may just take being on this actual island for these characters to remember that they do not have to suffer alone.

We get to know the other men primarily through Tyler's impressions:

  • Barkeep, the disheveled "rabble rouser,"
  • Godsick, exposing his true profession by his chosen name and unconscious hand movements,
  • Max, the embodiment of a former fighter, and
  • Menlo, a supposed teacher with the suave look of an attorney.
Carson X., who already knows everyone's secrets from their applications and therapy files, promotes certain topics to intensify discomfort and further the developing friendships. The group empathizes with each intimate revelation. Bitter and sweet, motivated by anger, grief, regret, loss...the details of the obsessions may surprise readers.

While on the island, the men are given considerable time to reflect. Tyler drafts letters to Kalee and spins backstories for the initials he sees carved into the wood of his cabin. He also socializes with permanent residents--Old Joe the gatekeeper, Inga from the grocery store, Sylvia the resident flirt, the drenched Arlo. He even hears a local love story as tragic as his own:

"Things were so right for them, for both of them. I read a letter he once wrote to her. In it, he said he had never believed it was possible to love someone as deeply as he loved her. There was a line that I'll always remember: 'How can I be so filled with someone else and still have room for me?'"
Kay imbues Tyler with such realism that his actions and thoughts seem unscripted. He relaxes into the Island's surplus of nature, the rhythm the ocean lends to each day. Real/imagined encounters with the oft-touted ghosts of Neal's Island put a fine point on Tyler's particular form of obsession. The stunning ending will leave readers repeating certain phrases for weeks. Kay's ability to finalize this novel without the conclusion, or the title, seeming overly contrived points to a veteran writer's experience and talent.

Perhaps the mock Tyler Bloodworth said it best: "It is odd how the imagination can sprint away. I was only God-playing with names and stories divined from initials carved into a deck railing..."

Kay has been the recipient of numerous awards for his fiction and screenplays, including an Emmy, Georgia Author of the Year, and the Southeastern Library Association's Outstanding Author of the Year.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Leslie Nichols Raith, 2015

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