Author, and Nelson County native, Fenton Johnson left his home for college just two weeks before the famous Kentucky State Police kidnapping and murder of colorful marijuana-farmer, and storyteller Charlie Stiles from neighboring Marion County in 1971.
That incident, and the subsequent rise and fall years later of “The Cornbread Mafia” — a large pot-growing syndicate based in Lebanon, Ky whose ringleader remains a fugitive to this day — serve as obvious influences on Johnson’s most recent novel The Man Who Loved Birds, released by the University Press of Kentucky this month.
The book, set in unnamed part of Kentucky, centers around the lives of its three main characters: charismatic outlaw, Vietnam War vet and pot-grower Johnny Faye; Bengali-born physician Dr. Meena Chatterjee, who has immigrated from India to set up a practice in an area with no physicians; and Trappist monk Brother Flavian, who joined the local monastery in the late 1960s to avoid being drafted into military service.
It takes place in the height of President Ronald Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and opens almost like the setup to a joke … “so this monk walks into a bar …” Sidetracked after running some errands in town, his chance meeting with Faye sets the tone for the novel as one about tough choices; choices between what is right, what is legal and all the judgment calls in between.
Faye is a popular figure who seems coated in Teflon for all of his illegality. He makes a compelling case as his own attorney during a trial over marijuana cultivation charges. He buries the golf cart of his nemesis, the County Attorney whose ambition is quite cynical, and ultimately very dangerous.
Flavian and Chatterjee have their lives altered in very different ways during their frequent interactions with Faye who is growing his most recent crop on monastery land. The monasteries idyllic grounds serve as almost a character. Their description made me want to see them first hand.
Faye, who can neither read nor write, has a self-styled philosophy on life that simply can’t be constrained by ever tightening laws that include brutal land and property seizure by authorities and increased prison time.
Though set more than a quarter century in the past, The Man Who Loved Birds cast timely light modern concerns: immigration and sometimes naïve American worldviews, sexual morality, changing views of our nation’s drug laws, the often competing concepts of reason and faith, desire and duty, action and contemplation.
Fenton’s novel sets things up in an interesting fashion, and is quite an easy read for most of its length, but is ultimately flawed.
Some of the dialogue, especially in regards to Faye, seems contrived or unrealistic. Real people don’t speak this way. Faye’s character, in particular, seems off at times, an unlikely source for some of the lessons he teaches.
The best dialogue and tension in the book happen too infrequently. A couple of clashes between a crafty county judge-executive and the county attorney were absolute gems.
About two-thirds through the novel, actions by two of the main characters take an unexpected turn that I’m almost certain will be quite off-putting to many readers.
And while the author says he wanted to write a book with authenticity, the ending is too sour and sudden. Plot points with main characters are left unresolved. I like my fiction a little more escapist and tidy.
The Man Who Loved Birds is available through all major booksellers and in e-book edition. For more information about the author, go online to www.fentonjohnson.com.