I grew up in southeastern Kentucky near Straight Creek, a…
Fenton Johnson. The Man Who Loved Birds. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Kentucky, 2016. 318 pages. Hardcover. $24.95.
In The Man Who Loved Birds, Fenton Johnson returns to his native landscape in the Kentucky Knobs to revisit themes he has explored in past works—love, the law and the lawless, spirituality, solitude, nature. The novel is like a homecoming on many levels.
The book is a new release by the University Press of Kentucky, part of its Kentucky Voices series that began a decade ago as a collection showcasing the best of the commonwealth’s literary traditions, including the works of Robert Penn Warren, George Ella Lyon, Frank X Walker and a handful of other acclaimed writers. Johnson’s earlier novels, Crossing the River and Scissors, Paper, Rock have been reissued simultaneously as part of the series.
The Man Who Loved Birds is set in the 1980s, a period when the region around Nelson, Marion and Washington counties became the hub of the largest domestic marijuana-growing organization in the United States. The area received national attention when federal and state drug enforcement officers seized 182 tons of marijuana in an extensive sting operation in multiple states. In headlines and in legend, the homegrown marijuana cartel became known as the Cornbread Mafia. The bust sent many Kentuckians to prison to serve long, mandatory sentences under laws enacted during the Reagan administration’s war on drugs. The novel includes a verbatim reproduction of a 1989 press release by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Louisville when sixty-eight people faced federal and state drug charges.
Johnson’s research into the facts of the case began more than two decades ago when he wrote a feature-length article titled “High in the Hollows” for the New York Times Magazine, but inspiration for The Man Who Loved Birds began even earlier in Johnson’s life. In 1971, he was a teenager in Nelson County, ready to head to California to attend Stanford University. A Marion County man known for growing pot and eluding conviction was killed in a suspicious shootout with Kentucky State Police. About the same time, a new doctor from Pakistan moved to Johnson’s hometown. She was a Muslim woman who became the first doctor in years to practice medicine in the predominantly Roman Catholic community. The two events loomed large in Johnson’s memory for forty years before he started writing the novel.
Three main characters form the heart of the story as they configure themselves into an unlikely triangle. Brother 115 Flavian is a Trappist monk who has begun to doubt his vows and ventures into the world beyond his central Kentucky monastery whenever he can. His character hooks the reader from the opening sentence:
Brother Flavian was not entirely certain what brought
him, a Trappist monk soon to celebrate his seventeenth year
in the monastery, to be standing in the Miracle
Inn with a draft beer in one hand and a pool cue in the
Dr. Meena Chatterjee is a Bengali-born physician who has been recruited to the area to set up a rural medical practice in a repurposed gas station. She is a skilled doctor but hesitates to take action that might jeopardize her immigration status.
Johnny Faye is a pot-growing Vietnam vet who uses outlying monastery land to cultivate his crop. He can’t read and lives outside the law; he’s also a storyteller, a bird lover, and the person that teaches lessons in transformational love to both Flavian and Meena.
The three share another bond through their connection to war: Flavian entered the monastery as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War; Johnny’s military service shifted his world view and introduced him to marijuana; Meena fled India after the war for Bangladesh liberation. Each leads a solitary existence, outsiders in their communities.
Johnson is a masterful writer about the natural world. His descriptions of the central Kentucky landscape are lush and recognizable. The woods, creeks, rocky soil, birds and snakes—particularly the snakes—come alive for the reader. Nature’s rhythms are captured in lyrical passages that connect all living things:
This is the time of year in this part of the world when
the glorious days of early summer lengthen and no one
can entertain the notion that summer will ever end,
that anyone or anything will ever die. Every living thing
reaches to the sun, which is nearing its solstice but has
not yet reached its brutal midsummer strength. The
days are long and warm but the earth has not yet taken
the heat as its own and the nights are deliciously moist
The author has constructed a world of sensual beauty, a landscape that feels both natural and mystical, made more powerful as a place that teeters between paradise and tragedy. Johnson’s narrative is deeply rooted in the natural world in the tradition of Willa Cather, Reynolds Price, and Rick Bass.
The spiritual aspects of the story are likewise strong as it explores the redemptive power of love in a world of good, bad, and power-hungry individuals. The primary setting—a fictional Trappist monastery surrounded by the Kentucky Knobs—is automatically associated with the 150-year-old Abbey at Gethsemani in Nelson County. Johnson’s childhood years were spent near the Abbey at Gethsemani; his family was well acquainted with the monks. He also lived in contemplative communities while writing Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey Among Christian and Buddhist Monks.
The Man Who Loved Birds is a type of homecoming, a story about a place, its history and legends. The book’s global perspective and unforgettable characters broaden its reach and keep it from feeling myopic or sentimental. And like most homecomings, it’s a patchwork of memories, hope, heartbreak, and choices.