Dirty Birds

By Andrew Guilbert

by Morgan Murray
Breakwater Books
2020/$22.95/432 pp.

Morgan Murray’s debut novel, Dirty Birds, hints at being loosely biographical from the start, when the rural Alberta born and raised Murray introduces us to Milton Ontario, a diffident small-town prairie kid. Ontario, sick of the listlessness of life in Bellybutton, Saskatchewan, decides he’ll pursue the life of a poet in Montreal, emulating his hero, Leonard Cohen. Milton’s poetry is bad, but he remains determined. After securing a small room in a shared apartment, he explores the city’s art scene as much as his savings allow. Amidst the festivals, bars, concerts and pedantic student conversations, he meets and instantly falls for indie filmmaker Robin, whose short doc about the landfill gulls of Calcutta gives the book its title. This shot at romance drives much of Milton’s actions and leads to some wonderfully chaotic scenes.

From cramped apartment parties with students debating semiotics, to biker bars and back alley parties with puppeteers, the description of the grimy, gritty glory of Montreal life rings true. Murray captures the feeling of these spaces particularly well: “[e]verything and everyone had honed this highly refined sense of irony to the point that irony became the core principle of their very being. It became their existential state.”

Murray explores this state in this modern bildungsroman—the lack of meaning and direction in a young person’s life and the many winding paths that seem promising but ultimately lead to lessons learned, at best, and indentured servitude to crime bosses at worst. Milton’s odyssey from the prairies to Montreal to Cape Breton and back provides many moments of self-reflection and disappointment typical for young adults.

The realness of these themes only emphasizes how ridiculous and fun Milton’s misadventures are, including a fracas at the world’s biggest omelette and an ornithological debate-turned-street-brawl. Among the cacophony of events are twists too good to spoil, but suffice to say that Murray shifts the story in ways that readers will often be glad to follow.

At times Murray switches fonts and formatting for epistolary sections, providing full-page doodles to complement and riff on the text, along with occasional footnote digressions. The first two strategies are usually engaging, but the footnotes can stall the storytelling, suggesting Murray doesn’t trust readers to know topics such as the FLQ crisis or Quebec’s referendums. This penchant for asides thankfully abates after the first 100 pages, though further sections of the novel could use a trim.

Once it gets going, Dirty Birds offers readers both surreal surprises and a chance to relive the uncertainty and excitement that comes from searching for one’s place in the world.

—Andrew Guilbert is a writer and journalist in Calgary.

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