Obit from NYT) His 1984 novel Scumbler was the first time I'd seen that word--or, more likely, the first time I'd bothered to look it up. As you can see in his obituary (link above), Wharton had long been a painter and took up novel-writing later on.
He burst on the literary scene with a remarkable first novel, Birdy--later made into a film in 1984 with Matthew Modine and Nicholas Cage. I cannot remember who first told me about Birdy. Did I read a review? Did my older brother mention it to me? All I know is that Joyce and I both read it in 1979 (we pencil the dates in the books we read), and we both fell in love with it. I'll confess right now: Joyce read it first (March); I, in August. So Joyce must have convinced me of its wonders. And she was right.
I had the kids write about the way(s) they were crazy. It was fun, hearing them read those pieces aloud. Adolescents have few problems writing about their personal insanities! They know they're nuts.
As I look at that quotation now, I think, too, of Emily Dickinson's little poem ... remember this one?
|MUCH madness is divinest sense|
|To a discerning eye;|
|Much sense the starkest madness.|
|’T is the majority|
|In this, as all, prevails.||5|
|Assent, and you are sane;|
|Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,|
|And handled with a chain.|
Anyway, for Joyce, Birdy was an easy call: She loves birds. She'd always had parakeets as a girl (they adored her, too--landing on her finger after their frantic flights around the living room), and at times in our marriage we've owned a number of larger birds, including a couple of Amazon parrots. All those in-our-marriage birds shared a single quality: they worshipped Joyce and despised me. When I walked by the cage, they would bark at me--well, the avian equivalent of a bark. These, the same creatures that would crawl docilely on her finger and coo and make baby-cute noises.
I never did a damn thing to any of them, either. I mean, it's not like I leapt at them or fired guns across their cages or waved snakes at them. They just had some deep, primordial aversion and expressed it with screech and beak and talon. I told Joyce, "You know, I don't really like having in the house an animal that wants to kill me." She smiled, petted her docile parrots that looked at me with a fierce hatred. Go figure.
Anyway, we were so enamored of Birdy, a story about a guy with a gift and an obsession with birds (I know: sounds weird--and does it ever get weird by the end), that we became sales persons--urging all of our friends and family to read it. And many did. And many liked it, too.
And afterwards, as Wharton published other novels, I read them on the day I bought them. Dad, A Midnight Clear, Scumbler ... and then I sort of lost interest and lost track, I guess. As I look at the titles of his final books, I don't even remember them at all: a couple of memoirs, Wrongful Deaths, Houseboat on the Seine. I should probably read them now, just to see.
Wharton belonged to my parents' generation (Dad, 1913; Mom, 1919), so he wrote about his experiences in WW II (Midnight Clear is the best example), and he wrote about aging (Dad is wrenching).
But it was that first book, Birdy, that grafted wings onto my body and set me soaring, for a while, around the remarkable literary geography he imagined.