Reviewed by Aaron Garrad
The Bird Saviors
By William J. Cobb
2012, ISBN 9781609530709, 310pp
A few years ago, we had a scare with the H5N1 virus, aka avian influenza, or bird flu. According to the World Health Organisation, over 580 people were infected with the virus resulting in 344 deaths. Over $10 billion has been spent on researching a cure (as yet unsuccessful), while some 200 million avians have been dragged squawking to the chopping block. Scientists fear the virus could easily mutate into a more lethal form; one that would make the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918—arguably the worst natural disaster ever—seem like an outbreak of runny noses in a kindergarten.
William J. Cobb’s latest novel, The Bird Saviors, speculates on a not too distant future when a killer virus is doing a number on mankind, and the birds are fingered for it once again. The story centres on the troubled city of Pueblo, Colorado, where municipal law requires the wearing of gauze masks in public, birds are hunted down and destroyed like flea-infested rats, hordes of illegal immigrants squat on the outskirts of town, and the weather has turned nasty: droughts, forest fires and fierce storms plague the land. It’s nothing like the aching devastation witnessed in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—to some extent it’s still life as usual in dust-choked Pueblo—but The Bird Saviors might well depict the early days of Cormac’s bleak and terminal catastrophe.
While there is a menagerie of point-of-view characters, Ruby Cole is the most endearing—a seventeen year-old single mother who lives out of town with her baby daughter, Lila, and her Mormon-ministering father, an embittered man she nicknames ‘Lord God’. Ruby refuses to buy into his rabid beliefs and regrets her childhood of ‘…harsh soap and chores and warnings against vanity and foolishness’ . Fed up with her father’s vitriolic ranting, she searches for the independent means that will finance her escape from his miserable household.
Her father’s madness isn’t the only thing weighing on Ruby’s mind. The steady loss of birdlife around Pueblo has her fearing the worst. She worries that one day they’ll all be gone, and that’s the day the world will end. Despite Lord God’s cynicism, she affirms to herself that ‘[the] going away of things must be noted. Especially a thing as perfect as a bird’  and undertakes the somewhat futile hobby of counting the birdlife she sees. When the ornithologist Ward Costello arrives in town to undertake a more rigorous bird population study, Ruby hitches her britches and wheedles her way into a job. Lord God has other plans for her however; he intends to make an honest woman of his daughter and marry her off to Hiram Page—fellow Mormon, local pawnshop owner and a nefarious force throughout the story. A much older man, Page already has two wives, and he lusts for Ruby to become the third.
Other storylines emerge, concerning the illicit activities of Pueblo’s Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints church. These are more plot driven and draw other, quite likeable, characters into the story, such as George Armstrong Crowfoot, an imposing sometimes-vigilante Indian who favours a tee-shirt emblazoned with a bloody axe and the words ‘CUSTER HAD IT COMING’; and Israel James, mounted police officer and blue-blooded sucker for easy women.
The dialogue is sharp, efficient, and distinctive among an array of characters: Lord God’s vinegar-drenched tirades reveal an acidic gloom towards life that no amount of piety can sweeten; Ruby’s at-times angry sarcasm betrays a deep yet brightening sentiment that she is not willing to voice. The formatting is a little confusing though, with dialogue between different speakers bundled in together without any punctuation or speech tags.
At times the imagery evoked by Cobb is masterful and complements the darker threads of the story, such as when Ruby watches birds in flight from her kitchen window: ‘Swirling in vast flocks in late winter, they look like smoke from a great fire, burnt souls twisting in the wind’ . At other times the image isn’t quite on tone and seems more suited for a lighter kind of book: ‘Crowfoot ends up talking to Ramona. Body double for an Oomp-Loompa porn queen’ ; and sometimes it’s just pushed too hard: ‘Ward’s head buzzes from insomnia, his mouth tastes like Band-Aids’ .
While this is William J. Cobb’s third novel, it’s the first I’ve read. The writing style suggests a faith that readers can appreciate a story without having it spoon fed to them. It’s clear that Cobb doesn’t feel compelled to report or explain everything that has happened or might be happening (notwithstanding the need for one last tight narrative edit). The effect is to create a tension that some will muse over yet others will savour. I’m very much of the latter.