THE NIGHT BIRD CANTATA by Donald Rawley

THE NIGHT BIRD CANTATA

Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

A deeply felt but wearyingly overwrought first novel by the recently deceased Rawley, a poet who—d been a contributing editor at Buzz, chronicles a ten-year-old boy’s lonely but transformative summer spent with his family’s maid. The setting is 1968 Phoenix. L.P., who wants to grow up to be a beautiful woman, has been raised by his childlike mother and his cruel, overperfumed grandmother, but both are away for the summer. And so L.P. is now cared for by Betty, the family’s black maid, and her husband Frank. Betty, who’d once had a career as a singer, logs long hours with L.P.; sensitive child that he is, he begins to tune into the ways that she’s alchemized her many losses and disappointments into defiant high style. He watches in awe as she sings in church and throws glamorous outdoor cocktail parties; he questions her about her life and loves, and though she’s sometimes evasive and occasionally drunk, she accepts him in a way his needy, preoccupied mother never has. He also hangs out with two neighborhood boys who don’t mind that he runs like a girl, learns to bowl and raid the liquor cabinet, and has a thrilling but troubling sexual experience with a local teen. When Betty’s husband dies suddenly, L.P. provides the comfort of company and shares Betty’s fantasy that he might live with her forever. But the summer is also haunted by his longing for his mother and grandmother. When they finally return, they—re more cruel and self-absorbed than ever, but L.P. has learned from Betty a habit of survival. This portrait of a child’s powerlessness and capacity for wonder is poignant, but the set-pieces that comprise the story strain for lyricism at the expense of pace and character development. The impact of this coming-of-age tale is diminished, then, by some relentless and heavy-handed atmospherics.

Pub Date: July 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-380-97609-9
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Avon/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 1998