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Wizard of the Pigeons by Megan Lindholm

WizardOfThePigeonsIt's amazing that it's taken me so long to get to this 1986 book, which seems to have earned classic status by this point. It's a bit strange that it took Loncon 3 selecting her as a guest of honor to prod me into finally reading it. I think one reason I've been wary of the book, despite its Seattle setting, is that the nutshell description of it -- a homeless man is a wizard -- sounded like a condescending liberal dream of the nobility of poverty. Well, it turns out to be pretty much nothing like that at all.

This is a surprisingly gritty novel about life on the street, and in fact it often feels like a horror novel. (I was reminded numerous times of Jessica Amanda Salmonson's Seattle-based horror-fantasy, Anthony Shriek.) Wizard's daily routines in search of food and shelter are described in painful detail. As in many a genre fantasy novel, he is threatened by a Wrongness that is an existential threat indistinguishable from his vulnerability to starvation, sickness, and privation. While his backstory is somewhat melodramatic in nature, the exaggerated fictional universe never undermines the nitty gritty. Wizard's exhausting life is almost exhausting to read about.

Along with the depiction of life on the street, the other great strength of the book is the characters, particularly Wizard himself and his strange nemesis, Lynda. I guess I would go so far as to say that Lynda is the supreme creation of this book. Wizard is a great protagonist, full of contradictions and subtle strengths that power the story, but Lynda is an amazing portrait of a personality type that feels torn bleeding from real life. Her neediness and generosity, non-stop chatter and physical boundary-pushing bristles with an anxious, intruding energy that gave me the heebie-jeebies. She refuses to be incapsulated or contained. It's curious (and marvelous) that she embodies the greatest threat to Wizard, and yet she is never villainous. She made my skin crawl, and yet I always retained a horrified fascination. Truly a brilliant piece of work.

In contrast, Wizard's true love, Cassie (short for Cassandra, one supposes), is an idealized figure who doesn't feel real at all. Yet she works as mythology, and actually another strength of the novel is how her relationship with Wizard, not his self or his soul or his power, turns out to be thing that is existentially threatened. Can't say too much about that without spoilers, but this novel manages to avoid a lot of cliches in the end by treating their relationship as the matter of central importance.

One other curious thing about how this novel struck me is that as a portrait of Seattle it felt a bit touristy at times, and I think that's because it's mainly set around Pioneer Square, which in my mind is a tourist playground and not the real city. But of course it's also a major hang out for homeless people, so I'm guessing that I'm revealing my own biases here. It doesn't help that most of the other places visited, such as the Public Market and the Seattle Center, are also tourist attractions. I dunno. It also has become a catalog of Lost Seattle after nearly thirty years, with references to the Kingdome and to a lone Starbucks by the Market and to the Fun Forest at the Seattle Center.

Well, I thought this was a really great novel. It's about a homeless man who is a wizard (and, yes, a protector of pigeons) and who is threatened by a Wrongness that grows out of his history as an emotionally damaged Viet Nam vet. It's a compelling portrait of life on the street and what it takes to survive it. It's horrific, but it's also very sweet. It deserves its vaunted reputation.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2013 08:02 pm (UTC)
Oh lord, I could and should have told you long ago that this fairly searing book is not a misty view of the nobility of poverty at all. From the realistic point of view, Wizard's magical powers are nothing more than a coping mechanism. And while that's not all they are, that's enough to convey the perspective being shown here.

I think what most tickles me about this book when I first read it, when it was new, was that the opening pages included the first reference I'd ever seen by that name to the Sinking Ship parking garage. And of course I knew instantly what she was referring to.

It's so much intensely set in skid row Seattle that an overlap with tourist Seattle never occurred to me.
Jun. 9th, 2013 08:40 pm (UTC)
One of the realistic things Lindholm does is show how Wizard's world is constrained by the Ride Free Zone for the buses -- something that is now itself a thing of the past, victim of the Great Recession. (One of the things debated as it was done away with was how homeless people would get around without it.) The only time he breaks out of that zone, other than a couple of trips to the nearby Seattle Center, is when he hikes up Capitol Hill during a fugue state in which he becomes increasingly disoriented. He has entered an alien land, and there he has a religious experience. Quite an interesting episode.

I guess one of my takeaways here is how much overlap there is between homeless Seattle and tourist Seattle. Something I'd never thought about before.
Jun. 10th, 2013 02:24 am (UTC)
The Ride Free Zone is gone? It's a good thing I found out that the system has changed to pay-on-entry throughout, as I otherwise would have been very confused whenever I pay my next visit. (As the old system terribly confused me when I paid my first visit.)
Jun. 9th, 2013 08:21 pm (UTC)
Disappointingly, the Seattle Public Library doesn't have it. Bummah!
Jun. 9th, 2013 08:40 pm (UTC)
Your welcome to borrow my copy, if you'd like.
Jun. 9th, 2013 09:20 pm (UTC)

After I'd typed in the above, I almost said "Look! There is a hint, dropped like a handkerchief from an fair maiden!" or something.

Jun. 10th, 2013 02:25 am (UTC)
Neither does the county system. This is one of the great Seattle novels. What is wrong with them?
Jun. 10th, 2013 07:48 am (UTC)
Was this "I've read all these Megan Lindholm books but not Wizard of the Pigeons", or "Gee, I should read something by Megan Lindholm"?

In my case, I've read pretty much everything by Lindholm, and around half of Robin Hobb's. It's been a long time since I read Wizard of the Pigeons. I remember thinking at the time that it was light and fluffy compared to her other stories.
Jun. 10th, 2013 02:51 pm (UTC)
This is the first thing by Lindholm/Robb that I've read. I hear Cloven Hooves is good fun.
Jun. 10th, 2013 03:47 pm (UTC)
The first part of Cloven Hooves was not an easy read for me. Walking an emotional tightrope. It could have gone horribly wrong at any moment. Then she took off, and wow.

I highly recommend the first Robin Hobb trilogy, the Farseer Trilogy (Assassin's Apprentice, Royal Assassin, Assassin's Quest). Best plotting I've ever seen. It's "how did she get away with that" good. And the characters, the politics, history and sociology, the landscape, magic systems, are compelling. The story is grim. It's about sacrifices that people make, sometimes willingly, sometimes because they have to. But not all the sacrifice is in vain.

The Liveship Traders Trilogy takes place a few years later, a few hundred miles away in the same world. Completely different characters. Different culture, places, even another magic system. And a different tone. It's a high adventure that only gradually develops darker undertones and different meaning.

The Tawny Man Trilogy revisits the setting and characters of the Assasin's books. Beautifully written, and sweet.

I started the Soldier Son Trilogy and bogged down in the middle book. Could not go on. I'll get back to it some day.
Jun. 10th, 2013 02:20 pm (UTC)
I loved that novel, but it's been ages since I read it.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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