Table of Contents
Also on this website:
Toby Johnson's books:
GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness
GAY PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature of God and the Universe
THE FOURTH QUILL, a
novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil
CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story
Books on Gay Spirituality:
Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The
Dimensional Structure of
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the "Statement of Spirituality"
You're Not A Wave
Joseph Campbell Talks about Aging
What is Enlightenment?
What is reincarnation?
How many lifetimes in an ego?
Emptiness & Religious Ideas
Experiencing experiencing experiencing
Going into the Light
Meditations for a Funeral
The way to get to heaven
Buddha's father was right
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
The Two Loves
Be Done on Earth by Howard E. Cook
Pay Me What I'm Worth by Souldancer
The Way Out by Christopher L Nutter
The Gay Disciple by John Henson
Art That Dares by Kittredge Cherry
Coming Out, Coming Home by Kennth A. Burr
Extinguishing the Light by B. Alan Bourgeois
Over Coffee: A conversation For Gay Partnership & Conservative Faith by D.a. Thompson
Dark Knowledge by Kenneth Low
Janet Planet by Eleanor Lerman
The Kairos by Paul E. Hartman
Wrestling with Jesus by D.K.Maylor
Kali Rising by Rudolph Ballentine
The Missing Myth by Gilles Herrada
The Secret of the Second Coming by Howard E. Cook
The Scar Letters: A Novel by Richard Alther
The Future is Queer by Labonte & Schimel
Missing Mary by Charlene Spretnak
Gay Spirituality 101 by Joe Perez
Cut Hand: A Nineteeth Century Love Story on the American Frontier by Mark Wildyr
Radiomen by Eleanor Lerman
Nights at Rizzoli by Felice Picano
The Key to Unlocking the Closet Door by Chelsea Griffo
The Door of the Heart by Diana Finfrock Farrar
Occam’s Razor by David Duncan
Grace and Demion by Mel White
Gay Men and The New Way Forward by Raymond L. Rigoglioso
The Dimensional Stucture of Consciousness by Samuel Avery
The Manly Pursuit of Desire and Love by Perry Brass
Love Together: Longtime Male Couples on Healthy Intimacy and Communication by Tim Clausen
War Between Materialism and Spiritual by Jean-Michel Bitar
The Serpent's Gift: Gnostic Reflections on the Study of Religion by Jeffrey J. Kripal
Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal
The Invitation to Love by Darren Pierre
Brain, Consciousness, and God: A Lonerganian Integration by Daniel A Helminiak
A Walk with Four Spiritual Guides by Andrew Harvey
Can Christians Be Saved? by Stephenson & Rhodes
The Lost Secrets of the Ancient Mystery Schools by Stephenson & Rhodes
Keys to Spiritual Being by Adrian Ravarour
In Walt We Trust by John Marsh
Solomon's Tantric Song by Rollan McCleary
A Special Illumination by Rollan McCleary
Aelred's Sin by Lawrence Scott
Fruit Basket by Payam Ghassemlou
Internal Landscapes by John Ollom
Princes & Pumpkins by David Hatfield Sparks
Blood of the Goddess by William Schindler
Sanctity & Male Desire by Donald Boisvert
Roads of Excess, Palaces of Wisdom by Jeffrey Kripal
Evolving Dharma by Jay Michaelson
Jesus in Salome's Lot by Brett W. Gillette
The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson
Scissors, Paper, Rock by Fenton Johnson
The Man Who Loved Birds
By Fenton Johnson
328 pages, Hardcover, $24.95
Available from Amazon.com
The Man Who Loved Birds: A Novel (Kentucky Voices)
Also available for Kindle and ebooks.
The Man Who Loved Birds by Fenton Johnson is a beautiful and poignant novel. It's about sexual and emotional liberation, but it's also about the hardness that is in the heart of Man and the anger with which those in authority sometimes treat those who don't give a whit about authority.
Johnny Faye is a marijuana farmer in the backwoods of Kentucky in the 1980s; he's a local boy, a free spirit loved by everybody who knows him—except for those who hate him, of course, and disapprove of his freedom and nonchalance. He's a prankster and a libertine, but also a son of the local earth who knows the woods like the back of his hand, and loves birds, knows their calls and can almost communicate with them, and who, by his own lights, is working for the good of his neighbors and the farming community, even though their crop has been made against the law (because the nylon industry wanted rope to be made from their artificial product, not the natural hemp that has been grown here for generations).
Johnny Faye's Kentucky Knobs backwoods happen to be next door to the Trappist monastery of Gethsemani Abbey. And his clandestine field is inside the monastery's property lines.
The title character is charismatic and sexy. He's a little squirrely about things like filling out forms and signing official papers, but he's generous and carefree and happy to share his knowledge of the birds and his zest for life with others who fall under his sway. And in the course of the novel, these are a woman doctor, new to town, and a disillusioned monk. The doctor has been assigned by the public health service to this poor township to staff a local clinic in a former gas station; she's from Bengal and just learning how to be an American. The monk had entered the monastery to avoid the draft during Vietnam; he is now questioning what he is doing with his life.
As the novel begins, Brother Flavian has taken a liberty for himself while he is running an errand for monastery and stops in the local bar and pool hall for a beer—and meets the charismatic stranger who teaches him to play pool, and then bestows upon him an envelope of money which is to go to the Abbot. It's under-the-table payment of lease for the pot field, but Flavian doesn't understand this yet and dares not speak to the Abbot because he wasn't supposed to have been in the pool hall in the first place. Johnny Faye plays a prank on the county attorney—and would-be real estate developer whose project threatens the marijuana business and the quality of rural life in these parts. In the commission of the prank, Johnny Faye is injured and requires medical attention and comes to the clinic of Meena Chatterjee, M.D. To draw all the characters together, a young boy is brought to the clinic in extremis because of a beating from his father, the township police officer, at the same time that Brother Flavian has decided to try to dispose of the money by leaving it surreptitiously in Dr. Chatterjee's waiting room. So begins the series of events which will prove Johnny Faye's undoing—and the necessary but poignant resolution of the novel.
The resolution of the novel, it turns out, is necessary because Fenton Johnson's plot is based on a real event, and Johnny Faye's fate is sealed from before the ficitionalized story ever begins. Though, of course, the reader does not realize this until they too are likely under Johnny Faye's sway. He's a charmer.
The plot is simple, though has several layers and seeing how these intertwine is part of the pleasure of the reading. But the book isn't really about the plot as much as about the character development in Dr. Chatterjee and Brother Flavian. Especially because the doctor's past was in India, her story has additional and exotic layers and her recollections allow for lots of Hindu stories to be woven into the mix. But even beyond the development of these characters, the story is about spiritual insight, meaning, sex, religion, monasticism, storytelling—the "geography of the heart" to quote the title of another Fenton Johnson novel that captures the deeper content of all his writing.
The descriptions of the Kentucky Knobs, the accounts of a couple of beautiful sexual sequences, the ruminations of the conflicted monk about religious life and destiny—all these contain hints at mystical experience and spiritual profundity, and they are beautifully written. There's a lovely cadence to Johnson's writing; his word choice is sometimes exquisite.
I've read most everything Fenton Johnson's written. I've met him once and corresponded with him a little. I share a fascination with monastic life. I joke to myself in new age whimsy that I must have been a monk in all my previous incarnations. Fenton Johnson grew up in the little town outside Gethsemani Abbey, and learned as a boy to know the monks outside their formal identities. In his spiritual autobiography Keeping Faith: A Skeptic's Journey which balances his Catholic upbringing with his discovery of Buddhism and Zen monasticism, he tells that his mother's kitchen was a frequent destination for monks from the Abbey playing hooky for the evening (like Brother Flavian on the first page of this book). There's a sweet and comedic episode in The Man Who Loved Birds of a group of monks getting drunk during a storm, coaxed on by Johnny Faye.
Johnson displays a wonderful sensitivity to human feelings and an awareness of the deeper, mystical dimensions of life that were the original source of religion and myth. Johnson is an openly gay man and this novel touches so sweetly on love, both gay and straight. Johnny Faye, consistent with his free spirit character, is beyond such categories as gay and straight. And all for love and life!
This novel ended too soon. That's partly because I was loving the story and hated to see it end, and partly because the abrupt resolution demanded by the historical fact on which the story is based leaves so many heartfelt questions unanswered.
I loved reading this book.
Reviewed by Toby Johnson, author of The Myth of the Great Secret: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell, Gay Spirituality, Getting Life in Perspective and other novels and books
Toby Johnson, PhD is author of eight books: three non-fiction books that apply the wisdom of his teacher and "wise old man," Joseph Campbell to modern-day social and religious problems, three gay genre novels that dramatize spiritual issues at the heart of gay identity, and two books on gay men's spiritualities and the mystical experience of homosexuality. In addition to the novels featured elsewhere in this web site, Johnson is author of IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD and THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET (Revised edition): AN APPRECIATION OF JOSEPH CAMPBELL.
Johnson's Lammy Award winning book
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our Homosexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was published by Alyson in 2003. Both books are
available now from Lethe
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