Mary McCarthy’s 1971 satire, Birds of America, is a tour de force. Set in New England, Paris, and Rome in the 1960s, it skewers both American innocence and hypocrisy.
I chortled over this comic novel, which is still pertinent today, but, bizarrely, it seems little-known. You don’t have to know about the 1960s to be amused by her mockery of frozen foods, a pious Thanksgiving abroad (which the hero calls “a harvest fest”), the faux-historicism of New England villages, and tourism in Europe (the protagonist thinks tourists should be licensed to go to art museums).
The 19-year-old hero, Peter Levi, an amateur ornithologist, is the son of the twice-divorced Rosamund, a harpsichordist with old-fashioned WASP values, and his father, “Babbo,” a Jewish-Italian art historian who teaches at Wellesley. Peter’s bird-watching is the ideal training for observing his elders and criticizing society, though his point of view is very odd.
McCarthy can eviscerate with a few well-chosen images. Take the scarcity of bean pots. In Rocky Port, a small New England town where Rosamund and Peter live for a short time after she leaves her second husband, Rosamund has decided to cook only American dishes from an old Fannie Farmer cookbook. But she cannot find a bean pot at the grocery store.
“How extraordinary, Peter! The man says they don’t make them any more. Do you think that can be true?” She was always asking him wide-eyed, troubled questions like that one, to which he could not possibly, at his age, know the answer; it was a kind of flattery, applied to the male ego. The only bean pot Peter was familiar with was pictured on a can. But the saw that for his mother this was a truly upsetting discovery, tantamount to finding that the American eagle was extinct. She was even more ruffled when she returned from her weekly shopping trip with the report that the two hardware stores in the neighboring town did not carry bean pots either.
Now Rosamund is my favorite character in the book, but I also see Peter’s point of view: why not just use a casserole? And after she searches hardware stores in neighboring towns and comes up with nada, their landlady gives her a bean pot she had used as vase for dried grasses. And that is the fate of bean pots and other old things: they are used decoratively, or stuck in the attic.
In college, Peter becomes a radical, but his parents won’t allow him to go to Mississippi with a Students for Civil Rights group. Ironically, during a summer vacation in Rocky Port, Rosamund and Peter are arrested when Rosamund refuses to put up a fake historical sign on the rented house (long story!) for a parade and festival for tourists.
Most of the book takes place during Peter’s junior year abroad in Paris, and it is very funny indeed. Peter is genuinely concerned about politics, but he doesn’t quite get the protocol of French student protests, where there is a tacit agreement between police and students that those arrested will be let go in a few hours. His attempt to intercede in an arrest annoys one of his acquaintances, but Peter’s complaint at the embassy is so ridiculous that he does eventually get them to make inquiries: of course the boy had been let go almost immediately!
Peter and his fellow American students, annoyed by the dumbed-down American program at the Sorbonne, have little practice speaking French, because the French ignore them. His most satisfying interactions are with a French bird-watching group.
So how does Peter spend his time? He argues about politics. He travels to Rome. He spends a lot of time furtively scrubbing the shared toilets in French and Italian hotels (in Rome a group of German tourists dominate the toilet all morning). And, not surprisingly, a quixotic attempt in Paris to help a homeless drunkard by letting her stay on his couch ends in disaster. (She vomits on the couch and steals his doorknob.)
I thoroughly enjoyed Birds of America, which was published in 1971. And I hope McCarthy is having a comeback: the Library of America just published her complete fiction. My own favorite McCarthy novel is A Charmed Life, a satire of an artists’ colony in a New England village. You can read my post here. But I have read several of her books, and enjoyed them all.