Excerpt from The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Bird Skinner

By Alice Greenway

The Bird Skinner
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2014,
    320 pages.
    Paperback: 11 Nov 2014,
    336 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Suddenly an amputee, he could no longer navigate the city. He couldn't get himself to the museum. He hadn't gone back, not even to say goodbye or to collect his things. He couldn't stand the idea of anyone opening doors for him, staring at the empty space where his leg had been.

"And no goddamned nurse!" he swore at Fergus. He'd had enough of that in the hospital. Enough poking and interfering, enough rules and regimens, enough mollycoddling. Not even allowing him a goddamned drink. He twirls the cigarette he has now defiantly between his fingers, associating it in his mind with a sort of freedom.

Early spring, Jim began to wonder if Fergus had been right about moving to Maine. He looked at himself in the mirror, eyes red-rimmed, thick stubble on his colorless cheeks, the deep creases in his forehead, the fishhook scar down one side of his face. His hair was thick, tousled, and uncut. His lips distinctly blue. He wondered if he was drinking himself to death. If so, there must be an easier way.

He flicks the spent cigarette, presses it into the grass with his single faded blue canvas sneaker. It's the first time he's worn a shoe in weeks.

Wintertime, Jesus Christ, he lived like a bear. Wrapping himself in a big fur coat he found in one of the closets. Piling goose-down covers and scratchy wool blankets on the bed, which was unmade and all scuffed up like a rat's nest. Sleeping. Drinking. Keeping the fires lit. Bottles and corks under the bed. Empty corned-beef tins that sprouted mold once the weather changed. Books left open with the spines straining. Half-smoked cigarettes stubbed out on the kitchen table. It's lucky he didn't set the goddamn house on fire.

Everything was new to him as he'd only come in summer. The island lay muffled in the snow of a freak storm. The weighted branches of spruce and fir bowed low over the white-clad rocks. Slips of birch trees shivered like cold bones. In the cove, disgruntled gulls hunkered on broken slabs of ice. An early snow goose with its black wing tips appeared one day on its way to summering in the arctic. Chen caerulescens — he noted it in a book he'd started, a record of birds on Indian Cove.

At night a pair of great horned owls hunted the point, filling the house with their bassoon-like calls. Scoters and rafts of eiders floated on the gray sea. When the temperature dropped below freezing, a sea mist rose from the water and wrapped the island in a mirage-like veil. He looked at the thin drift of snow lining the balustrade outside his bedroom and remembered that Helen had always wanted to come here for Christmas. They never had.

The house was cold. No matter how many fires you lit, how long you kept them going, you couldn't make it warm. Large, airy, built for summer, it had little insulation, no central heating. Instead it had a warren of rooms for guests, extended family, and servants. The original owner was one of a Boston elite, who called themselves the Rusticators. Businessmen, bankers, lawyers, architects, who flocked down along this coast at the turn of the century, seeking, like Emerson and Thoreau before them—like Jim now—a simpler life. Only for them, Nature was buffered by maids, cooks, and in-laws.

Cold leaked through places you wouldn't expect, right through the shingles and slated boards, right through the glass panes of the windows facing out to sea, right under the floorboards as the large front porch, jutting over the lawn, let the wind in underneath.

When Jim arrived, Stillman carried some ancient wood up from the basement, and they struggled to light the big cast-iron stove in the kitchen. The flue was clogged with a nest from the year before, which eventually fell down into the stove and burst into flame. Jim felt ashamed not to be able to look after himself as he watched his old boyhood companion light the fire in the dark wood sitting room, then in his upstairs bedroom.

Excerpted from The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway. Copyright © 2014 by Alice Greenway. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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