Missoula author Swain Wolfe locates the action of his latest novel in New Mexico, and does a fine job of capturing the elusive atmospheric quality of the Southwest. Lava fields and cliff dwellings, abandoned outpost towns and a lingering sense of history emanate from the pages. Wolfe’s Southwest is a place where anything can happen. It’s the land of enchantment, a timeless place of beginnings, and the end of the road.
The Parrot Trainer begins with a surreal scene in which a car swerves off the rim of a canyon, floats through the air, falls five hundred feet in five seconds and lands right side up, its driver dead on impact. The scene is witnessed by Jack Miller, a man hiking nearby. Miller finds a map in the car, and a sketch of a bowl that particularly interests him. The sketched bowl is decorated with a drawing of a woman holding a parrot. Miller is intrigued enough to begin a search for the Mimbres cliff dwelling marked on the map with hopes of finding the parrot trainer bowl.
Meanwhile, a female archeologist, working to raise funds for the protection of virgin archeological sites, travels in search of Miller, a notorious pot thief who lives in Silverado, N.M. These two narrative threads run parallel until Miller and the archeologist finally meet and are drawn to each other.
The archaeologist, Lucy, hooks up with an odd threesome on her journey from Albuquerque to Silverado: Henri Bashé, a French post-modernist philosopher; Anita, a high-strung Texan red-head directing a Bashé film; and Anita’s handsome video-whiz boyfriend, Billy. These four keep up a steady stream of banter, involved in their mutual project but off in their own worlds. Without a doubt, some of the novel’s funniest parts revolve around the satiric treatment of Henri Bashé. Anyone educated in the era of post-modern relativity theory is bound to enjoy his bizarre and insightful rambling.
When Miller finds the bowl with the parrot trainer painted on it, he carries it down the cliff face and receives a nasty insect sting. By the time he gets home he is hallucinating. He begins to see the image of the parrot trainer moving in the bowl. Eventually, she comes to life and tells him about the life she lived a thousand years before. Her discourse is an imaginative exploration of various theories of migration to the North American continent.
Jack Miller represents a peculiar type of man, successful but reclusive, a dynamic character who has withdrawn from a way of life that no longer suits him. His conversations illuminate an understanding of art and history that comes only from experience, knowledge from the inside out.
One of Jack’s pastimes is the construction of life-size figures out of mud. He and a group of neighbor girls refer to them as mud men. They are designed to disintegrate when the rain comes: “The thin bands of willow bark that had held back the gestures of arms, legs, ankles, wrists, and heads began to slip. The poised dancers moved—some slow and graceful, others in awkward jerks. Some unable to contain their enthusiasm for a moment of life, exploded. Then came disintegrating flurry of flying mud and willow stays. The entire colony let loose across the rising water.” Mud has a story to tell if we are willing to listen.
But certain elements of The Parrot Trainer break the spell. The novel falls short, in particular, in its shallow portrayal of female characters. The women in the novel appear as types, not characters with depth. While it’s necessary to give characters physicality, I don’t believe I know a single woman who would admire her attractive “toe cleavage” while bathing her foot. Toward the end of the book, the use of colloquial phrases in descriptive narrative spun me right out of the story. Referring to a sandwich in a child’s hand as a “sammich” is simply jarring. In light of The Parrot Trainer’s other strengths, though, perhaps a tougher editor would have been able to identify and refine such weaknesses.
In the novel’s last scene, Miller and Lucy climb to the entrance of a remote ice cave in glacial Alaska. It’s a cave that Miller has been visiting for twelve years. They have come in order to view the emerging form of a prehistoric man trapped in the ice. In the soft light of dawn they see what they have come for. It’s quiet and they are alone, looking into the distant past to a scene frozen in time. In a striking moment of shared understanding and intimacy, a revelation. The Parrot Trainer, with its humor and its somewhat campy style, finds a way to capture the imagination and help us relate to something as remote and yet pervasive as time itself.
Author Swain Wolfe will read and sign books this Friday, March 7, at Fact & Fiction. 5 PM. FREE.