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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2014, 320 pages
    Nov 2014, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rebecca Foster

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Print Excerpt

Fox Island, Penobscot Bay, Maine, July 1973

Jim wedges the chair into the kitchen doorway, forcing the screen door open, lights his third or fourth cigarette. The doctors told him not to. Cut down on the drink, right down, and cut out the smoking altogether. To hell with that. He lost the leg anyhow.

The nicotine leaves him edgy and overly alert. An irascibility that's hard to burn off, stuck as he is in a wheelchair. He could use a drink is the truth of it but he'll hold off for now. It's the least he can do—not meet the girl half drunk.

Go easy. Go easy, he mutters aloud. Shutting his eyes, he wills himself to concentrate on birdcalls. A habit honed since he was a boy. A surefire way of keeping emotions at bay, or safely battened down, which is how he likes them. Gulls—the leitmotif of the island, laughing or crying, however you want to take it. The scolding of a blue jay. The sharp chirrup of a robin. Crows—down by Stillman's place patrolling the fields, their voices grate, hoarse as smokers', and crack like adolescent boys'. There's no cacophony—it being midsummer and high noon—but he can hear the thin, come-hither whistle of a phoebe from the woods in front, the fish hawk mewling as it circles high above the point.

There are other sounds. The low diesel chugging of Adam MacDonald's lobster boat setting out late. Moments later, the dock creaks in the wash from its wake, rubbing against the wood stakes. Clenching the cigarette between his teeth, Jim wheels out the door, over the uneven grass, and past the corner of the house. From here, he can look down the sloping lawn to the shore, where weed- and barnacle-covered rocks are exposed at low tide, across the brown-green water of Indian Cove, down the end of the Thoroughfare to the open blue of the Penobscot Bay. In the deepest water of the cove, a clutch of Stillman's orange and yellow lobster pots bob on slack lines.

"You can't live up there," his son Fergus protested when Jim announced his intention to move here to the old summer place in Maine. "You'll be too cut off."

"Damn right, I'm cut off," Jim snapped. He looked down at his stump. Transfemoral is the word they use when the leg is severed above the knee. Which makes it more difficult to fit a peg leg, or a prosthesis as the doctors insisted on calling it, though Jim had refused one anyhow.

"What if you fall down? What if you get stuck?" Fergus grew uncharacteristically fraught. He felt guilty perhaps, being the one responsible for hauling Jim off to the doctor: the advocate for his father's operation. He implored Jim to be sensible, to hire a nurse or housekeeper. Pleaded with him to stay put, at least until summer.

"What if I get stuck here?" Jim spat back, banging his crutch on the floor. It was the one satisfying thing about being a cripple, having the stick to bang about.

The truth is, he was already stuck. He'd been stuck since the war. He'd gone back to work, the museum in New York kindly offering a position. There, he'd busied himself writing reports about other people's finds—buried himself more like it—for the past thirty years. His latest undertaking had been to catalog the department type specimens, the skins first used to identify new species and subspecies. The standard against which all new discoveries are compared. The museum had 6,300 of them, representing somewhere near a third of the world's known birds.

It was meticulous, painstaking work that involved delving into dusty archives, deciphering unintelligible labels, sometimes scrawled in French or German. It required encyclopedic command. Still, it was derivative, clerical.

He'd not initiated any original inquiry of his own. He'd not traveled, unless you count the daily commute from Greenwich into the city and back. He'd become a mothballed, dried-up skin himself. A shriveled specimen preserved by alcohol—gin in his case. His one book, his one valuable contribution to science, Extinct and Vanishing Birds of Oceania, published in 1960, was itself a compendium of loss, a rejection of life and living things.

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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