Sunday, August 10, 2008

The Pilgrim Hawk: A Love Story – Glenway Wescott

This slim novel, first published in 1940, takes place in a single afternoon. Alwyn Towers, an American expatriate and wannabe-novelist, is visiting his friend Alexandra Henry in a Parisian suburb. One day, a well-to-do nomadic Irish couple drop by, unannounced.

With deft shorthand, the author describes the couple through Tower’s perspective on Alexandra’s assessment of the Cullens as “…self-centered but without any introspection, strenuous but emotionally idle. It was a type of a humanity that she no longer quite respected or trusted, but evidently still enjoyed.”

The Cullens aren’t traveling alone. Madeline Cullen, much to her boozing, boorish husband’s chagrin, has brought along one her true love, Lucy, a trained hawk. Madeline dotes on the bird (their hats match) and insists on it being fed the same fare as the humans (the bird prefers her pigeon raw, not cooked, hold the currants). Lucy, all dark charisma, is the center of everyone’s attention and a fascination for Alwyn (as well as the reader). She’s also a constant source of ire in Larry Cullen. While the philandering husband tolerates his wealthy Protestant wife’s financial support and lodging of Irish Catholic rebels, no doubt out of his own guilt, but Madeline sheltering this wild bird is something he cannot abide.

Larry knows Madeline’s moral code and upbringing will allow a flirtation with an Irish rebel to go only so far but no further, but her all-encompassing devotion to the hawk is something he can’t overcome, and it drives him to the breaking point.

When dinner is delayed, the ladies decide to rest up a bit. Before doing so, Madeline ties Lucy to a bench in the yard outside. With the hawk finally outside his wife’s dominion, a drunk and enraged Larry sees his one chance to do away with the bird.

And Alwyn, the aspiring writer, is all too keen to watch this drama unfold, recognizing its potential for story material. Drawing parallels of live and love with that of a captive, wild bird, he muses, “…if your judgment is poor you fall in love with those who could not possibly love you. If romance of the past has done you any harm, you will not be able to hold on to love when you do attain it, your grasp of it will be out of alignment. Or pity or self-pity may have blunted your hand so that it makes no mark. Back you fly to your perch, ashamed as well as frustrated. Life is almost all perch. There is no nest….”

There’s more drama, more insight into the complexities of human nature, the drinking life and the writer’s way, and the subtle undercurrents of the war known as marriage in this literary novel’s mere 100 pages than there are in all the modern novels I’ve read this year put together.

Michael Cunningham, in his introduction sums the merit of this oft overlooked must-read classic: “… the enormous is amply contained within the small; that the ingredients of tragedy can be found in abundance among genteel, indolent people passing an afternoon together in a parlor and a garden.”