Some books--some of the best--defy description. But we'll try. On one level, this is a novel about a boy named Birdy, who with his friend Al Ambrogio grows up in a Philadelphia suburb before World War II, and is fascinated by pigeons. High school deflects Al's attention toward girls, but Birdy moves from pigeons to canaries, eventually raising an entire aviary. Level number two: Birdy's fascination with canaries--their habits, songs, and, above all, their flight--completely captures his imagination: "I know I want to fly at least as much as any canary. I don't have to fly anything as well as a canary; gliding down from high places with arm control might be enough." Level number three: this is a book about a boy who becomes a bird in every way but physically. To fly like, act like, be like a bird becomes less and less acceptable to Birdy. A recurrent dream that conquers even his waking hours allows him into birdness itself, a total liberation--falling in love with Perta, a female; raising young; even, in fantasy, being almost killed by a cat. Wharton sets this all up in a poignant frame: pal Al visits Birdy in an Army mental hospital just after the war, and in his locked room Birdy hops around, hauling up in his memory the entire change from boy to bird into man. Sounds improbable, we grant you--even a little off the wall. But this is an amazing work of real art. Birdy's imagination and empathy soar, looking for freedom; in Birdy's voice, his desire is as real to us as our own; we begin to strain toward birdness ourselves. This isn't parable or allegory, either--no Jonathan Livingston Seagull stuff. There's a literalism here, an eccentricity, so held-fast to itself that it utterly succeeds. Birdy is a boy who simply is trying to get closer to an ineffable grace that humans don't have, trying as hard and completely as he can. If you let this one go by, you will have missed some of the year's most original and remarkable fiction. An extraordinary book.