Review:  The Man Who Loved Birds

by Fenton Johnson

Contact Us

Table of Contents

Search Site

home  Home


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

SECRET MATTER: updated, revised & expanded edition from Lethe Press with Afterword by Mark Jordan

GETTING LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE: A romance novel set in the 1980s and the 1890s.

THE FOURTH QUILL, a novel about attitudinal healing and the problem of evil

TWO SPIRITS: A Story of Life with the Navajo, a collaboration with Walter L. Williams

CHARMED LIVES: Spinning Straw into Gold: Reclaiming Our Queer Spirituality Through Story


About ordering

Books on Gay Spirituality:

White Crane Gay Spirituality Series

  Articles and Excerpts:

Read Toby's review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness

Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"

The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate

Why gay people should NOT Marry

Wedding Cake Liberation

Gay Marriage in Texas

What's ironic

Shame on the American People

The "highest form of love"

Second March on Washington

A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality

 The cause of homosexuality

The origins of homophobia

Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness

What is homosexuality?

What is Gay Spirituality?

My three messages

What Jesus said about Gay Rights

Queering religion

Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men

Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?

The purpose of homosexuality

The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter

The Gay Succession

Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality

What the Bible Says about Homosexuality

Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men

Varieties of Gay Spirituality

Waves of Gay Liberation Activity

Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium

Easton Mountain Retreat Center

Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism

The Gay Spirituality Summit in May 2004 and the  "Statement of Spirituality"

"It's Always About You"

The myth of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara

Joseph Campbell's description of Avalokiteshvara

Avalokiteshvara at the Baths.

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

Meditation Practice

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

Curious Bodies

What Toby Johnson Believes

The Joseph Campbell Connection

Campbell & The Pre/Trans Fallacy

The Nature of Religion

What's true about Religion

Being Gay is a Blessing

Drawing Long Straws

Freedom of Religion

The Gay Agenda

Gay Saintliness

Gay Spiritual Functions

The subtle workings of the spirit in gay men's lives.

The Sinfulness of Homosexuality

Proposal for a study of gay nondualism

Priestly Sexuality

 "The Evolution of Gay Identity"

"St. John of the Cross &
the Dark Night of the Soul."

 Eckhart's Eye

Let Me Tell You a Secret

Religious Articulations of the Secret

The Collective Unconscious

Driving as Spiritual Practice


Historicity as Myth


No Stealing

Next Step in Evolution

The New Myth

The Moulting of the Holy Ghost

Gaia is a Bodhisattva

The Hero's Journey as archetype

Marian Doctrines: Immaculate Conception & Assumption

Teenage Prostitution and the Nature of Evil

Allah Hu: "God is present here"
Adam and Steve

The Life is in the Blood

Gay retirement and the "freelance monastery"

Seeing with Different Eyes

The mystical experience at the Servites'  Castle in Riverside

The Great Dance according to C.S.Lewis

The Techniques Of The World Saviors

Part 1: Brer Rabbit and the Tar-Baby
Part 2:
The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara
Part 3:
Jesus and the Resurrection
Part 4:
A Course in Miracles

The Secret of the Clear Light

Understanding the Clear Light

Mobius Strip

Finding Your Tiger Face

How Gay Souls Get Reincarnated

In honor of Sir Arthur C Clarke

Karellen was a homosexual

About Alien Abduction

What are you looking for in a gay science fiction novel?

The D.A.F.O.D.I.L. Alliance

More about Gay Mental Health

Psych Tech Training

The Rainbow Flag

Ideas for gay mythic stories

Kip and Toby, Activists

Toby's friend and nicknamesake Toby Marotta.

Harry Hay, Founder of the gay movement

About Hay and The New Myth

About Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, the first man to really "come out"

About Michael Talbot, gay mystic

About Fr. Bernard Lynch

About Richard Baltzell

About Guy Mannheimer

About David Weyrauch

About Dennis Paddie

About Ask the Fire

About Arthur Evans

About Christopher Larkin

About Sterling Houston

About Michael Stevens

Our friend Tom Nash

Book Reviews

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

Doctors, Lawyers, Monks and Pot Dealers

Finding God

The Man Who Loved Birds

The Man Who Loved Birds 

By Fenton Johnson


pages, Hardcover, $24.95


Available from
The Man Who Loved Birds: A Novel (Kentucky Voices)

Also available for Kindle and ebooks.

5 stars

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

rainbow line

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 GAY SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of Human Consciousness was published in 2000. His Lammy-nominated book  GAY 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 Press.

 back to top

BACK to Toby's home page

valid html

Essential SSL