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RICHARD EDER

The World Within Sight of the Lighthouse : THE BIRD ARTIST, By Howard Norman (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $20; 320 pp.)

July 10, 1994|RICHARD EDER

"We do not die of being sick; we die of being alive," Montaigne wrote, and in Howard Norman's brief and measureless new novel, four violent deaths are as lively as a convivial meal, sexual passion, the flight of birds, a painter's urge to portray them, a hunter's to slaughter them and the wavering wake of fishing dories hailing each other through the Newfoundland fog.

These things are high-colored and intense, and they are bubbles. Like the fishermen and their boats, the characters and their stories in "The Bird Artist" set out on courses, but their actual movement meanders on a sea that is enigmatic and still as a whole and--wave by wave--playful.

If modern physics builds mountains out of absurd dottles of positively and negatively charged matter, Norman's metaphysics devises large human affairs out of frivolously and unstably charged particles of tragedy and comedy. His humanity's Big Bang was a burst of laughter that time gravely floats through the eons.

Seven years ago, Norman published "The Northern Lights," set among the Inuits of upper Canada. It was a magical romance, told with a restraint and lightness that ensured that neither the reader nor the remote society where it took place was in the least manipulated. It was dazzling, though it sagged somewhat when its Anglo protagonist, growing up, was brought back from the north to live for a while in Montreal.

Unlike most second books that follow a brilliant first one, "The Bird Artist" is an improvement. It is as light and magical, it is more searching and suggestive, and it has no flaw at all. It is one of the most perfect and original American novels that I have read in years; and the only trouble with saying so is that, when extracted for a blurb, such words distend the book's witty economy.

"The Bird Artist" recounts in the first-person the growing-up of Fabian Vas in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, early in this century. From childhood he drew and painted birds; and as an adult he makes most of his living doing it, along with a little shipyard carpentry. His story is dramatic, even melodramatic, but it is not told that way. The voices that Norman gives him and the other characters are reflective and deflected: by turns aroused and relinquishing, wry and lyrical, comic and homely. As with John Gay's "Beggar's Opera," a libretto of passion and violence takes on a quizzical serenity, set--we can all but hear them--to a disconcerting variety of lilting and raffish tunes.

"My name is Fabian Vas," the narrator begins, using the matter-of-fact airiness of Huck Finn or Ishmael to announce a story that may go anywhere at all. "You would not have heard of me. Obscurity is not necessarily failure, though; I am a bird artist, and have more or less made a living at it. Yet I murdered the lighthouse keeper, Botho August, and that is an equal part of how I think of myself."

So we know what happened and who did it right from the start. Yet Fabian's account has the mystery and tension of a novel of suspense all the way through. It is the mystery of how people behave, of how life treats them, and of the antic calligraphy that quite disrupts the way you would expect the markings of life and behavior to go. Since this is so much more than a genre book, the mystery is not dispelled at the end; only appeased.

Fabian is the son of Alaric, a restless, dreamy woman, and Orkney, a hard-working carpenter and bird-hunter who has yoked a limitless heart to a series of narrow and devoted purposes. With all of the book's characters, in fact, the fundamental transaction is the friction between their essential limitlessness and the limits they live in. The result is never frustration--that would make the kind of realistic novel that Norman has no notion of writing--but a rainbow of unexpected colors.

The story, essentially, tells how Fabian is taught to abandon safety and take possession of his limitlessness; not by cracking open the world of Witless Bay but by cracking himself open while making some perceptible dents on that world. The transformation will come from a series of joyful, disastrous or merely bemusing encounters in which he experiences, in doses ranging from tiny to overwhelming, the limitlessness of everyone else.

On the large side there is his stormy passion for Margaret, the daughter of the mail-boat captain. A precarious Beatrice composed of sex, vitality, fury and impenetrable schemes, she will alternately lead and goad him through his journey. There is Alaric's affair with Botho during her husband Orkney's long absence to harvest birds. There is Orkney's return, and an explosion of grief and shame that will propel Fabian to the lighthouse to shoot Botho with the gun Margaret has providently lent him.

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