Series: Pitt Drue Heinz Lit Prize
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press; 1 edition (September 19, 2014)
Review by Robert Hambling Davis
Like Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America, Kent Nelson’s collection, The Spirit Bird, features birds, or at least one bird, in every story. Each story is set in a different location, including Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina, Washington, and California. Many of the characters are avid birders, but the stories themselves explore the lives of lonely men and women trying to resolve their cultural and racial differences, or to overcome the isolating effects of past traumas by seeking a connection with the human community, or the natural world, or both.
In “Alba,” Último Vargas runs his own door-to-door movie business in the New Mexico desert, where he is forced to live and to compete with Netflix. “The Hotel Glitter” portrays a single Hispanic mother who commutes three hours a day to work at a hotel spa near Telluride, and must choose where her loyalties lie when her childhood friend shows up unexpectedly and creates a scene at the spa. “Who is Danny Pendergast?” features a man who can turn into a donkey, and Hakim, the Middle Eastern protagonist in “Race,” is a glassblower and runner who alters his priorities after surviving a clinical death in a marathon.
The fourteen stories are character-based, and most of them have open-ended conclusions, as if stand-alone first chapters of novels, leaving the reader to speculate over possible sequels. The metaphoric “spirit bird,” which thematically ties these stories together, shows what its different characters have lost, usually through emotional trauma, and what they must struggle to overcome to rectify their impoverished lives and feel a sense of community.
An avid birder, Nelson has identified more than 757 North American species. Birding, he says, has made him more “aware of looking,” and this practice “has meshed nicely with [his] writing.” He is a world traveler, with a doctoral degree in Environmental Law from Harvard, and one of the pleasures of reading The Spirit Bird is its detailed descriptions of wildlife. Nelson is also a mountain runner, a sport he’s trained in since 1996, and he’s run the Pikes Peak Marathon twice. Several of the characters in The Spirit Bird search their inner selves in ways reminiscent of the willpower and endurance of long-distance runners. Nelson’s short fiction has appeared The Best American Short Stories, The Best of the West, the O. Henry and Pushcart anthologies, and The Best American Mystery Stories. He has also published two novels, Language in the Blood and Land That Moves, Land That Stands Still.
His prose is well-crafted, and the collection won the 2014 Drue Heiz Literature Prize, which offers a cash award of $15,000 and publication by the University of Pittsburgh Press. David Guterson, who wrote Snow Falling on Cedars, was the judge.
The Spirit Bird will appeal to readers who like stories featuring complex characters who seek new personal horizons amid natural landscapes.
You can check out the book here: http://www.amazon.com/The-Spirit-Bird-Stories-Heinz/dp/0822944367
– Robert Hambling Davis is a fiction editor of The Fox Chase Review. He has published in The Sun, Antietam Review, Memoir (and), Philadelphia Stories, Santa Monica Review, and elsewhere. He’s been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes, and received three Delaware Division of the Arts grants, two for fiction and one for creative nonfiction. He was a fiction semifinalist in the William Faulkner Creative Writing Contest in 2002 and 2012, and a creative nonfiction winner in 2013. Robert helps direct the Delaware Literary Connection, a nonprofit serving writers in Delaware and surrounding areas. He is a member of the Delaware Artist Roster, and has given writing workshops and readings in the Mid-Atlantic.