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Birds of a feather find each other

Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots: A Novel, Jim Paul, Harcourt: 320 pp., $24

August 03, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

Nightingales, doves, cuckoos -- the list of birds that inspire human love is a long one, but it usually doesn't include parrots, those bright-colored rascals we imagine perched on pirates' shoulders, rasping profanity. Jim Paul, however, shrugs off this stereotype in his latest novel, "Elsewhere in the Land of Parrots." The author of "Medieval in LA" and "Catapult" gives parrots -- to be precise, rare cherry-headed conures -- the power to lure an isolated San Francisco poet into romantic conjunction with a biologist studying the mangrove swamps of Ecuador.

The poet, David Huntington, "didn't go out much," Paul says, understating the case. Traumatized as a 4-year-old when a swan bit him in a park, David rarely leaves his rent-controlled apartment. He sleeps and works with plugs in his ears. He writes "X poetry," which is deliberately meaningless (no easy task with English words that, even in random combinations, all too often end up meaning something). To earn a living, David teaches, inflicting "great muddy depths of ennui upon hapless undergraduates."

Two things upset his tranquil but lonely life. The first is a "genius" grant that frees him from the need to teach. Now he can write the grandest, most meaningless X poetry ever -- or implode. The second is the gift of a parrot, Pepito, from his father, an unloving man who simply wants to get the bird off his hands. David renames the parrot Little Wittgenstein, after the philosopher who "said that language was a cage. No matter how much you wanted to be in contact with the world, you couldn't get past this cage."

This is David's rationale for X poetry: If a poet can't really describe the world, all he can do is describe the cage, whose bars are words. Paul, who writes verse himself ("The Rune Poem"), overshoots a little here in his spoofing of the literary avant-garde. He's more believable when he describes how the biologist, Fern Melartin, who learned to love animals as a girl, finds that in graduate school in Arizona "the subject itself ... was often simply the excuse for the business of becoming a professional academic. She needed to care less ... to be political and get a committee together."

Rebelling, Fern takes a job in a wildlife preserve in Ecuador, where parrots that used to live wild in the United States still survive. More disillusionment follows: The reserve is run by a womanizer who puts Fern to work at menial chores and may be selling endangered birds and animals. Only when she's humiliated and fired does she have time to hunt for parrots in the treacherous swamps.

Meanwhile, David, irritated by Wittgenstein's raucous, messy ways, throws the bird out the window. Then he's overcome with remorse. He leaves the cocoon of his apartment to check out rumors that a flock of feral parrots inhabits the warm lee side of Telegraph Hill. He meets people who tend the flock (and have renamed his parrot Brando). They say that the birds, aware of global environmental stress, have "recruited" human beings to help out -- and tell David that he's obviously the latest recruit.

David considers this a woolly, sentimental notion, but the next thing he knows he has put everything he owns in storage and embarked on a freighter for Ecuador. His destination is the delta of the Guayas River -- the swamps where Fern is working. They will meet, of course, but before they do, they share an ecological epiphany.

Thanks to his parrot, whose human names slide off like rainwater, David begins to experience the world directly. He comes to think that the idea of language as a cage "could come only from someone who'd spent too much time in some little room somewhere" -- like David himself. He realizes that the San Francisco parrots and the Ecuadorean parrots are descendants of the same 40-million-year-old flock whose numbers led Columbus to call the New World "the land of parrots." Fern, too, in the crucible of the swamps, feels that she is at home in nature, an integral part of it.

A real romance writer would put more difficulties in the path of love. Girl must lose boy before she gets him, and vice versa. But Paul, who has a smooth, assured style, a knack for description and much to tell us about parrots, mangroves, Ecuador, San Francisco and the future of the planet, has bigger things on his mind, and the love story runs on cruise control. All we can conclude is that those whom cherry-headed conures have joined together are pretty well stuck with each other for good.

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