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YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned
from Joseph Campbell: The
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, a sci-fi novel with wonderful "aliens" with an Afterword by Mark Jordan
LIFE IN PERSPECTIVE:
Fantastical Gay Romance set in two different time periods
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: GaySpirit in Storytelling, a collaboration with Steve Berman and some 30 other writers
THE MYTH OF THE GREAT SECRET: An Appreciation of Joseph Campbell
IN SEARCH OF GOD IN THE SEXUAL UNDERWORLD: A Mystical Journey
Books on Gay Spirituality:
White Crane Gay Spirituality Series
Articles and Excerpts:
Review of Samuel Avery's The Dimensional Structure of Consciousness
Funny Coincidence: "Aliens Settle in San Francisco"
About Liberty Books, the Lesbian/Gay Bookstore for Austin, 1986-1996
The Simple Answer to the Gay Marriage Debate
A Bifurcation of Gay Spirituality
Why gay people should NOT Marry
The Scriptural Basis for Same Sex Marriage
Q&A about Jungian ideas in gay consciousness
What Jesus said about Gay Rights
Common Experiences Unique to Gay Men
Is there a "uniquely gay perspective"?
Interview on the Nature of Homosexuality
What the Bible Says about Homosexuality
Mesosexual Ideal for Straight Men
Waves of Gay Liberation Activity
Wouldn’t You Like to Be Uranian?
The Reincarnation of Edward Carpenter
Why Gay Spirituality: Spirituality as Artistic Medium
Easton Mountain Retreat Center
Andrew Harvey & Spiritual Activism
The Mysticism of Andrew Harvey
Joseph Campbell's description of AvalokiteshvaraYou'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
What Anatman means
Advice to Travelers to India & Nepal
The Danda Nata & goddess Kalika
Nate Berkus is a bodhisattva
John Boswell was Immanuel Kant
Cutting edge realization
The Myth of the Wanderer
Change: Source of Suffering & of Bliss
What the Vows Really Mean
Manifesting from the Subtle Realms
The Three-layer Cake & the Multiverse
The est Training and Personal Intention
Effective Dreaming in Ursula LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven
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 nine 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, four 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 and editor of a collection of "myths" of gay men's consciousness.
SPIRITUALITY: The Role of Gay Identity in the Transformation of
Human Consciousness won a Lambda Literary Award in 2000.
PERSPECTIVE: Things Our [Homo]sexuality Tells Us about the Nature
of God and the Universe was nominated for a Lammy in 2003. They
YOUR OWN TRUE MYTH: What I Learned from Joseph Campbell: The Myth
of the Great Secret III tells the story of Johnson's learning the
real nature of religion and myth and discovering the spiritual
qualities of gay male consciousness.
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