________________ CM . . . . Volume IX Number 15 . . . . March 28, 2003


Spirits of a Feather.

Charles W. Shirriff.

Lincoln, NE: iUniverse.com, Inc, 1999.
253 pp., pbk., $19.95.
ISBN 1-58348-547-3.

Grades 7 and up / Ages 12 and up.

Review by Darleen Golke.

*1/2 / 4


"Nice place you have here," Jay said out loud. "But maybe I shouldn't stay. I don't have a towel, or soap or anything."

"You didn't bring anything with you?"

"Of course I did. My mother even packed me a lunch. But it got stolen on the way here. While I was asleep."

Jay almost believed himself at that moment although in the deep recesses of his mind he knew his escape from Oakridge was the culmination of a lifetime of frustration and pain. His attempts to save money for several months had amounted to nothing. At his mother's usual end-of-the-month welfare cheque party Jay's most recent father took out his bad mood on him. After the adults had lapsed into a drunken stupor, Jay rifled their pockets for money and rushed from the cabin in fear they might rouse and catch him. In his hurry he hadn't thought to bring clothes or personal belongings with him, not that there were a lot of them to bring. It hadn't occurred to him that bus fare would take most of the money.

Jay escapes his dysfunctional family life in a "perennially makeshift [Oakridge] cabin" in northern Manitoba by boarding a Grey Goose bus bound for Winnipeg with eleven dollars in his pocket. Alone in a strange city, Jay accepts a fellow traveler's offer of a hide-a-bed for the night and enters the world of big Phil and his friends. Armed with prejudices and attitudes learned from his mother, his succession of "fathers," and his reading - old Reader's Digests, the Bible, and the first volume of World Book Encyclopedia - Jay finds homosexuality particularly repugnant. Phil, on disability leave from the police force, Cam, a heterosexual accountant who likes the gay lifestyle, and Steve, a flamboyantly gay travel agent, lecture Jay about gays and homosexuals, AIDS, the gay life style, homophobia, and related topics. Over the ensuing six months, the three men become surrogate fathers to Jay although he consistently insists he can handle things on his own. Along the way, the cast of characters Jay encounters include a mismatched couple he meets hanging out at Portage Place, a shifty drug baron for whom he delivers "packages," an affluent girlfriend whose parents naturally disapprove of him, a New Age flake who fascinates him, a First Nation shaman who provides spiritual guidance, and a Chinese restaurateur who gives him a job and a place to live.

     Lectures recur throughout the novel. On several occasions, Phil expounds on vegetarianism; Shirriff even includes a 32-page Appendix with vegetarian recipes. (I tested the "Peanut & Lima Bean Loaf" with limited success.) Shirriff continues his "lectures" with travelogues of Winnipeg and San Francisco, with discourses on shamanism, psychic phenomena, seances, Winnipeg Fringe Festival, raves, drugs, interventions, and other topics. Interestingly, the lectures sometimes erupt at the most peculiar times. For example, when Jay is running from the thugs drug baron Tony sends after him and hides out in the North Main Street area, Shirriff interrupts the pace of the action to describe the architecture of the Exchange district and segues into the Winnipeg Fringe Festival.

     Inconsistencies occur throughout the novel. Despite his frequently avowed homophobia, Jay takes the "stroll" in the male prostitute area of Winnipeg and considers "trying to make a few bucks" to "get a hotel room for the night and maybe something to eat." A seasoned hustle veteran interrupts his fledgling attempts to get picked up and lectures him about the dangers of hooking and melodramatically grumbles, "this life screws up your head and your emotions when you start selling yourself" because "you're selling part of your spirit." Knowing Tony has sent goons out to punish him, Jay calmly confronts him, and when Jay promises never to "discuss [Tony's] business with others" Tony, remarkably, lets him off the hook.

     Jay, himself, is a study in inconsistencies. He is both innocent and jaded, melodramatic and realistic, open and dishonest, petulant and accommodating, uneducated and, in his own words, "erudite and literate." His character changes as the action or the situation dictates suggesting that the author wasn't sure what traits he wanted for his protagonist. Italicized passages indicating Jay's inner thoughts are inserted randomly in the narrative further demonstrating the inconsistencies. Nevertheless, Jay is an engaging young man whose appeal lies in his blend of naivete and world-weariness. Jay explains he has embarked on this quest to locate the father he has never known, but only rarely does he seem to remember his quest. He eventually looks for his father in the San Francisco area when he accompanies Steve on a Christmas holiday.

     Problems with the handling of time and inconsistencies in language and detail interfere with the pace of the story. The dialogue is often stilted and ponderous, hardly suited to the characters or circumstances. These issues, along with grammatical errors, sentence structure, and vocabulary, might have been rectified with the assistance of a good editor. Although sanitized language and the absence of sex scenes or episodes of violence are laudable, writing a realistic novel set in contemporary society entails using the idiom, diction, and behavior characteristic of the locale and characters. Shirriff's story has potential as a tale of adventure and discovery, but his apparent determination to educate his readers by slipping facts into his prose whenever possible interrupts the flow of action and damages the quality of the story itself. The abrupt ending after Jay's "eagle spirit" revelation obviously suggests a sequel but leaves the reader dangling. Young adults, the target audience for the narrative, might well become discouraged by the slow pace and frequent forays into instructional mode.

Recommended with reservations

Darleen Golke is a librarian living in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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