Kim Church’s debut novel, Byrd, tells the story of Addie Lockwood, a young bookseller in North Carolina, whose brief, ill-fated romance with an old high school crush, Roland Rhodes, results in an unwanted pregnancy. The book is composed of incisive chapters—some in the form of letters written from Addie to the son she gives up for adoption (a child she calls Byrd), some no more than a paragraph long—and spans over four decades and three states, exploring the lives not only of Addie and Roland, but also their families and the many people they touch along the way. These details alone might suggest a tome, but in Church’s confident, economical hands, the novel is a satisfying, sometimes swift read; so swift, in fact, that the author’s style belies the effort involved in writing as compressed a narrative as Church achieves.
The novel begins in 1965, when Addie and Roland first meet in fourth grade. Roland has just moved to town from Alabama and is exotic to Addie in ways another child might be at such an age, writing with his left hand and turning his ice cream sandwiches into animal shapes in the cafeteria every day. A rumor spreads around school about a diving accident he experienced back in Alabama that adds to Roland’s mystique. For fourth-grade Addie, the most appealing aspect of Roland is his name, which sounds to her “…like a place…A faraway place. One that would take a long time to get to, and once you did, you would never want to come back.”
A friendship develops between the pair as they bond over music and poetry and share an unsuccessful sexual encounter in high school. They graduate and move on, not communicating for over a decade until Addie impulsively contacts Roland after a bad break-up and flies to California to visit him. In a letter written later to Byrd, Addie explains this decision with a list of reasons, the final of which is “Retrocausality… At a point farther down the space-time continuum was a child waiting to be brought into the world. I called your father because you wanted to be born.” It is during this visit, in a drug-addled daze, that Byrd is conceived, altering the path of both Addie and Roland’s lives.
To say Byrd is a novel about unwanted pregnancy is to simplify a narrative that is multilayered and rich. Church deftly touches upon a variety of subplots and themes, finding essential details in even the most minor characters’ lives. One theme that runs throughout the book is addiction. Roland uses cocaine; Addie’s father, Bryce, is an alcoholic; Roland’s wife destroys herself with gambling. But all are subtly rendered, Church resisting the dramatic for something more representative of truth. While Bryce fails to pick his wife up from a Kentucky Fried Chicken and runs his car into a neighbor’s front lawn, these events are exceptions rather than rules. Ultimately, Bryce is a functioning alcoholic, not ruining his wife and children’s lives so much as humiliating and disappointing them, dashing hopes and expectations.
Perhaps because most of the characters in Byrd have made their own mistakes, they understand the power of forgiveness. When, after several weeks of sobriety, Bryce visits Addie, he describes for her the AA meetings he’s been attending, explaining that he is on step four, requiring he take a personal inventory of his good and bad qualities. Assuming that the “bad” list is easier to compile, Addie offers to help her father with the “good” list, reminding him: “You have good taste in clothes”; “You took us for ice cream on Sundays”; “You bought us good shoes.” Sometimes, these small gestures are the most we can ask for from the ones closest to us.
The tenderest moments of the book are found in its epistolary sections. While the rest of the book is written in third person, Addie’s letters allow the reader to step inside her mind, revealing her truest thoughts and feelings, and the inevitable pain and guilt associated with the difficult decision of giving up a child. She tells Byrd about his father and grandparents and explains to him that she calls him Byrd because, “I knew the name wouldn’t follow you. Which is partly why I chose it—I wanted a name no one else would ever call you. One thing about you that would be only mine.”
As is the case in the best fiction, the devil is in the details. Church’s writing is precise, succinct and meditative, accomplishing in a single sentence what might, in the hands of a less nimble writer, take a paragraph to say. When Addie’s father recalls his troubled childhood, it is summarized in two slight paragraphs that show readers all we need to know to understand the circumstances that led Bryce to alcoholism:
His ma spent her evenings at prayer meetings and left him with his brothers, who ignored him, and Cicero, who passed out on the couch. When his ma came home she would put Cicero to bed first, then Bryce, like nothing was the matter.
No one else at his school had a father named Cicero. That, plus being small, plus having asthma, plus coming from the mill village, made him a natural target for bullies. He learned two lessons at school. One: Every day would be a new fight. Two: He would always lose.
Similarly, the characters in Byrd are quiet, observant people, noting the swirling flight of swifts, the inscriptions discovered in used books, the sound car tires make on paved roads, the songs of crickets, and the way someone they love smells of glue and paper or breathes silently, even when gasping for air. These small moments are pieced together, creating a life, sustaining Church’s characters as they anticipate the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell that is “…a real bell forged from steel, its clapper a small steel ball. A simple, beautiful thing, weighty and substantial, like the door itself, which is solid oak.” In these subtle flashes, Church shows us how we as humans manage to live “with hopes, but no expectations” of what the world might offer us, if only we are open to it.
About the Reviewer
Lenore Myka’s fiction was selected as one of the 100 Distinguished Stories by The Best American Short Stories and won the 2013 Cream City Review and Booth Journal fiction contests. Her work has appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, Massachusetts Review, H.O.W. Journal, and Upstreet Magazine. She received her MFA from Warren Wilson College.