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David Ireland: The Chantic Bird

The unnamed narrator of this book is, as he keeps telling us, sixteen and three-quarters. He has been bounced from seventeen jobs, most recently for fighting. He lives a life he considers is free. He does not work but rolls drunks, steals, joy-rides cars, tortures helpless animals and wantonly destroys property. He also looks after his family. His parents are both dead and his younger siblings are in the care of a woman called Bee, whose relationship either to the family or to the narrator is not established. Indeed, it is not sure if he is their older brother. They all call him Daddy as they call Bee Mummy and there is some suggestion that he may have fathered at least one of them with Bee. He pops in and out of their lives, turning up when convenient and often hanging out in the attic, sometimes unbeknown to them. However, he is generally protective of them and cares for them and helps them out financially.

His behaviour with his family is in marked distinction to his behavior with the rest of the world. He makes a great point of saying he is a loner and despises those that join a gang. He is happy to sleep rough – in the zoo, in a factory, wherever he can. While he is happy to get money when he can by petty theft or by rolling drunks, he seems to be just as happy committing wanton destruction for its own sake, such as causing a train to jump its rails or killing innocent animals.

And the Chantic Bird? This bird – a mispronunciation of Enchanted Bird – appears in a story invented by his very inventive younger brother, Stevo. We gradually get the story – a convoluted fairy tale – as Stevo tries to tell it but the narrator has not got time to hear all of it. Eventually, when it is all out, Stevo refuses to tell it again, perhaps because he is too grown up to do so. There is also David Petersen, who is the one who persuades him to write his story, with the intention of using the story to make him (Petersen) a famous novelist. He meets Petersen when he is returning the car he has stolen and used to joyride. Petersen obviously sees him not just as a story but as a homosexual thrill. He pays for it with his life.

Ireland’s tale may, superficially, seem to be the one Petersen may have written, a white bleeding-heart liberal writes a tale of a man of the street, a completely amoral outlaw, but there is more than that for the narrator is after two things – freedom (though he does not comprehend the responsibility that goes with it) and belonging as, despite his remarks, he wants to belong to the family, though he is unsure where he fits in. Is he redeemable? The last words of the book are Don’t forget I’m writing to show you what a silly thing it is to live.

Publishing history

First published 1968 by Heinemann