William J. Cobb's third novel, The Bird Saviors, is a pre-apocalyptic tome with interwoven plots set in rural Colorado. The United States has been devastated by bird flu, along with economic collapse, political unrest, moral ambiguity and weird weather. Apart from the flu and frequent dust storms, Cobb's near future resembles very much our present day. They still have Walmart and "The Deadliest Catch," but then again, perhaps this is only the beginning.
Ruby is a 17-year-old unwed mother. Her father, sometimes addressed as "Lord God," has a peg leg from wars in the Middle East, hates Muslims and practices a deformed version of Mormonism. The novel follows Ruby as she attempts to escape the clutches of her father and find hope in a world that's become increasingly cutthroat and senseless, a world where people shoot birds for fun.
Multiple characters and plot lines are threaded through the story. There's the polygamist pawnshop owner who wants to take Ruby on as a third wife, the widowed ornithologist who counts birds and craves love, a man trying to pawn off a shrunken head, a woman who'd rather swallow a $20,000 engagement ring than give it back to the man who broke things off, the horse cop who loves her and on and on. The desperation of these characters is palpable, and Cobb does a nice job of juggling so many dead birds in the air.
The central question of the book deals with hope and faith. Where do they intersect? Are they the same thing? The following passage, told from the horse cop's perspective, gets to the heart of the matter: What leads people to temptation?
"Israel James does not like motels. They bring out the worst in people. The good take home a bar of soap or vial of shampoo, the polishing cloth for a shoeshine they will never use, maybe the Gideon Bible in times of spiritual doubt. The bad rip the blow dryer out of the wall, burn a hole in the carpet, then strangle a hooker to death after failing to perform, leaving her body beneath the bed or stuffed in the closet, covered with a blanket, behind an ironing board. And the people who are torn between good and bad? They hear the devil whispering, and they listen."
On a stylistic level, The Bird Saviors employs certain devices that other book reviewers don't seem to be mentioning. 1) The novel is written entirely in present tense, to no effective end. 2) It foregoes the use of quotation marks, of which the result is often confusing and distracting. 3) It employs frequent, overt and sometimes incomprehensible use of metaphor and simile.
In the very first paragraph, Cobb gives us the sentence, "Outside the foggy window Smoke Larks flutter liquid as living shadows to perch atop the woodshed." Not even a friendly comma after that introductory clause to help us thereafter? It gets better, but we've gotten off on the wrong foot. Do we need to be told that the severed head skyjacks a man's dreams "like a special guest star?" Or that his eyes burn "like they've been soaked in Tabasco?" For those who come to a novel looking for a story, endless comparisons to things that are just like the other thing start to tick in the brain.
It's a shame, because there's real storytelling here, filled with sharp, noir-ish dialogue. About the authenticity of the severed head up for grabs: "Hock shops value the odd. It might fit right in. I mean, it's a head all right. Even if I doubt it's Black Jack's."
People have reoccurring dreams of pink snow. The smell of juniper wafts liberally, and "the night air is cold as glass vapor, the Milky Way a river of stars in the blackness above." Whether or not these tropes will bother most readers may simply be a matter of taste. Even with its many foibles, The Bird Saviors manages to tell a story worth knowing.