If you ever feel you’re in the mood for something completely absurd, out of this world (but in it), something that will make you laugh, wonder what the heck is going on, and reflect on the author’s wild imagination, Dirty Birds is your book.
All Milton Ontario wants is to spread his wings; leave his parents’ basement in Saskatchewan for the big city of Montreal, where he imagines he will finally have the freedom to become a poet. After all, this is Leonard Cohen’s city – the greatest poet of all time.
As the cover of the book depicts, Milton’s life starts out in a small prairie town. He then travels to Montreal where his life starts to take interesting twists and turns until it goes in a direction he would never have imagined. My acrostic review is similarly topsy-turvey, highlighting some parts of the book that I hope will give you a flavour of the book without giving away the events.
D: Disasters. In the course of Milton’s adventure, he encounters or is involved in a number of disastrous incidents; some humiliating, and others completely absurd. Often both. For example, the great omelette catastrophe. A downtown bank was serving an early breakfast to art-festival attendees – a 10,000 egg omelette. By a chain of comedic events set off by Milton, the omelette went flying through the air and the propane burners were knocked over. Good thing the riot police were there (300 of them!). “Montrealers never shy away from a chance to have a proper riot. As the egg zombie horde spilled into the streets, they started smashing windows, flipping over and setting fire to cars, looting jewelry stores and Baby Gaps, and climbing light poles draped in Quebec flags singing Montreal Canadien fight songs.” Luckily for the police, they have a video clearly showing the culprit, and are now looking for anyone who might know him…
I: Idol. Leonard Cohen is Milton’s hero. He’s the reason Milton came to Montreal. So imagine Milton’s excitement when he actually gets to meet him. Noddy, one of Milton’s roommates, frantically calls Milton to come to his jobsite – he has a surprise for him. When he gets there, Milton finds Leonard Cohen in a room tied to a kitchen chair. I will not tell you why, but know that meeting the great Leonard Cohen results in Milton’s biggest troubles yet. However–despite the circumstances–he’s still able to get some writing advice from his hero: “Listen, my son, and listen carefully. This is important. Poetry isn’t words on a page. It’s not a song or a lyric or the tune a bird sings. It’s nothing you clearly think it might be. It doesn’t articulate any great, unknowable, unreachable, incomprehensible pain buried in the pit of our souls. Poetry, my son, is merely the act of turning words and lyrics and tunes and melodies into lovers and money.”
R: Robin. Robin is the woman Milton falls in love with during one of his first outings in Montreal. He spends the rest of the book mooning over her, writing poetry for her, and endeavoring to get her to love him back. This does not always go well.
“Ah, yeah, hi.”
‘Long time no see!”
It’s me, Milton.”
“We met a bit ago.”
“At that potluck in St. Henri.”
T: Terrible poetry. Milton writes and writes and writes. And we, the readers, get to read some of it. It’s awful, but what would Milton do without it? It is the one thing that keeps him going, that gives him hope that he might finally get to where he wants to be.
my heart is a dessert
you walk through like a lizard
but you don’t drink
and that stinks
Y: Yearn. Poor Milton. All he wants is to be someone; a poet, a boyfriend, someone other than Milton Ontario from Bellybutton Saskatchewan. “He spent what was left of the night clanking away on his typewriter, composing syrupy love poems about making love to Leonard Cohen songs on the bar of La Baraque. It was some of his worst.”
B: Bagels. Luckily for Milton, he is able to keep to his budget by surviving on a diet of “half-rotten two-for-one pineapples and day old St. Viateur bagels.” Birds. In a twist of plot that I will not get into, Milton finds himself alone on an Island in the Labrador Sea observing–and taking notes on–the seabirds that live there. “On a desert island in the middle of an icy sea, completely and utterly alone, socked in with fog, wind smashing him in the back, sitting on a rock, being screamed at and shat upon relentlessly by surly, recalcitrant seabirds, composing love poems to his not-quite lover was the most comfortable and most himself Milton had ever been.”
I: Indefatigability. “Milton had survived all sorts of humiliations and brushes with death since moving here. He’s been punched and kicked and chased by dogs. He’d been mistaken for a junkie and left for dead on the street. He’d been wanted by police for starting a riot at a publicity stunt. He’d inhaled more asbestos and lead and formaldehyde than was okay. Yet, he persisted.”
R: Roommates. Milton’s roommates are wonderful secondary characters. Georgette–mother hen yet wild partier–whose speech is always a mixture of French and English: “L’univers, mon petit, te doit que dalle. The universe does not owe you anyt’ing. Especially not a woman. We are not there to be won. What do you think? We are a prize? To be won in a box of Cracker Jacks? We are woman. People. Pas des possessions. If you want something from the world. Si tu veux un amoureux. You must earn it. You must work for it.” And Noddy: Was there ever a character so crass and repugnant? His long speeches about life, the world, and Newfoundland add colour and laughs for the reader, yet constant trouble and annoyance for Milton who has to put up with him so much more than he ever thought possible. “Lessons on Newfoundland history: “Confederation was a fraud, b’y. Everyone thinks the place was bankrupt, but that was bullshit lies that Quebec spy Smallwood told everyone ’cause he was on the take.”… Lessons about economics: “She’s rigged, b’y. The works of ‘er. The banks own it all. And they own the politicians. And they make the rules. And the rules says they get it all. And they get it all because we give it to them.”… Lessons on labour relations: “Unions are a racket, b’y, so you gots to get in ’em, if you can. I was in the stevedore union, it was prime dog f*ckin’. Never stole so much shit and made so much money in my life.“”
D: Danger. There are a couple of times in the book when Milton’s life is in danger. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I will just say that it involves Noddy, guns, and Leonard Cohen. Donairs. “But donairs? Sweet merciful Christ! Shameful. Some rich capitalist f*cks somehow convinced half this goddamned placed that turned meat rolled on the floor and covered in a bit of turned Miracle Whip is not just worth eating, but something worth bragging about as if it doesn’t taste and look the spitting image of dog shit. Not fit, b’y. Not fit at all.” [Noddy]
S: Saskatchewan. Milton’s home province. “Saskatchewan is the distillation of geography into the purest mathematical form of utilitarian colonial averageness. It’s what happens when history and landscape are erased, and a kind of bland Victorian modernist utopia is designed from scratch by bureaucrats who had never seen a prairie sky in its full spring fury, who had never had a whiff of native prairie grasses in late summer, who had never had their nostrils freeze shut in a cold prairie winter.” There are similar descriptions of other places Milton finds himself, including Montreal and Newfoundland (with a quick drive through New Brunswick and Nova Scotia). “Newfoundland is so far from everywhere that it has its own time zone.”
So where does all this take us? On a very Canadian coming-of-age adventure that is more about the journey than the destination. But, then again, is it? You might be surprised.
“It’s good, but do you have to swear so much?” – Morgan’s Mom
Atlantic Books Today: “Dirty Birds is the perfect misfit read for your next layaway, or when you’re down to your last shot of whisky. It provides days’ worth of warm, weird feelings.”
The Fiddlehead: “Dirty Birds is a whip-smart, structurally coherent romp that dresses its satire in the weeds of comic mayhem.“
The Telegram: “One of the most fun and dynamic aspects of the book is Morgan’s facility with different dialogues. These include, but are not limited to, the matrix of the prairie junior hockey structure, the non-stop conversation of a Newfoundland taxi driver, academic papers, police files, and, most prominently, Milton’s poetry.”
Thank you to Breakwater Books for sending me a copy of this book!