I originally reviewed The Impossible Bird by Patrick O’Leary on November 22nd, 2006.
Mike and Danny are brothers who were close when they were younger but grew apart as they got older, especially after one particular summer. Mike is a successful director of commercial spots who lead a rootless lifestyle and answers to no one. Danny is a professor of literature; he is a devoted husband and father. They both are paid a visit by gun toting secret government agents. Each brother is asked for “The Code”. When they don’t provide the answer they are each told that they must find their brother or they will die. Mike and Danny set out to find each other. This quickly becomes a journey of self discovery as they pick their way through the deceit filled mine field of their past
Impossible Bird follows a similar story structure as O’Leary’s second book The Gift. In each of these stories there are main characters whose storylines run concurrent to each other, often highlighting one another, not converging until late in the telling. Each story arc parses out relevant puzzle pieces that slowly forms a coherent picture at first then turns into something entirely different by the completion.
A lot of time is spent with both brothers. We get to know everything about them, their lives, their dreams, their weaknesses, their personalities and their sometimes hard past. O’Leary is a master at deep characterization, in all of his novels his characters are so real that not only will you know them completely but you will identify with parts of them as if you have known them for your entire life. His characters always have a spark of humanity that, besides making them compelling, makes them likeable as well. This isn’t to say he’s not afraid to present all of their faults and problems because he does but he won’t go so far as to judge them. O’Leary understands that humans are fallible, imperfect and most important messy, chaotic and complicated.
Here is an example of how O’Leary perfectly encapsulates a moment. With a parity of words he demonstrates his power as a writer. The scene starts out simply enough, then we start to feel a little guilty as if we shouldn’t be seeing this, it even begins to get a bit creepy if not downright unsettling. He illustrates the thrills of childhood lined with the horrors that are present in some of them. Then he gives one final twist of the corkscrew embedded in your heart, regardless of whether you knew it was there or not.
The only set up for this scene needed is that Dr. Klinder is a guest speaker who hypnotizes Mike’s science class and Mike is one of those people who can’t be hypnotized.
The man who hypnotized his whole fourth grade class into believing they were invisible. Leading them in a chorus countdown in the Saginaw Museum’s science wing.“Five! Four! Three! Two! One!”
And suddenly the beautiful feeling of being safe. Truly safe. Nobody watching. Nobody seeing. His science teacher Mrs. Brown and the field trip chaperons, lined up by the frosted glass door. Their eyes closed, their smiles benevolent. All his classmates quiet and crowded together, smiling guilty smiles.
Mrs. Brown slowly licking her lips, remembering a private pleasure.
One boy touching himself through his corduroys.
One girl reaching out and holding the hand of the boy in front of her.
Mike looking at Peggy Stack’s red pigtails. Finally free to stare without shyness at his secret crush: her freckled face and blue eyes. Mike smelling Peggy’s scent: peaches. Dr. Klinder speaking, and though he stood across the room, it felt like he was whispering in his ear. “You look like you want to kiss her, Mike. Go ahead.”
“Go on. She can’t see you.”
And Mike leaning down and tilting his head toward the little girl in pigtails.
Contact: the electric warm smoothness of her lips.
His open eyes taking in the white down on her freckled cheek.
The tip of her tongue gently parting his teeth.
His first kiss.
Klinder’s red parrot giving a wolf whistle that echoed off the high ceiling of the science wing.
And the huge tear trickling down her face, interrupting the kiss.
Her sad eyes and her one word. “Daddy?”
Impossible Bird is a bit disjointed. There is an abundance of ideas, tweaks of convention, story arcs, sub plots, references and of course characters. They are all interesting and well told but they all don’t come together in the way that his earlier novels did. But, despite its shortcomings, Impossible Bird is fascinating with some brilliant moments, especially as the major story threads start to come together and the story really kicks into gear.
Even if O’Leary doesn’t seem to understand the conventions of thrillers nearly as well as science fiction and fantasy there is a lot to like about Impossible Bird. As is sometimes says about other authors, even mediocre Patrick O’Leary is better and more original then most of what’s out there.