Stephen P. Kiernan's new novel is fashioned of three distinct stories, like three circles in a Venn diagram with the narrator in the overlap. Deborah Birch is a hospice nurse caring vigilantly for a patient in the last stages of dying, a retired-in-disgrace history professor named Barclay Reed. Reed's never-published final manuscript, which Deborah reads aloud to him, provides the second story. The third involves Deborah's husband, Michael, who has returned in torment from three deployments in Iraq, most recently serving as a sniper. The circumstances from which this composite tale is made are timely and important.
Kiernan, who lives in the Burlington area, is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop who has worked for a couple of decades as a journalist. He has won multiple awards in particular for his work on the Freedom of Information Act and the First Amendment. Kiernan is the author of a previous novel and two nonfiction books, the second of which, Last Rights: Rescuing the End of Life From the Medical System, directly connects with the setting and themes of his new novel.
The tripartite structure of The Hummingbird is interesting, involving and not difficult to follow. "Nurse Birch" (as the dying Reed insists on calling her, even after they've become intimates) goes back and forth between her patient's bedside and her own home. There, her husband also comes and goes, in obvious disarray and always on the verge of fury. The excerpts from Reed's manuscript tell the tale of a Japanese pilot who flew secret bombing runs during World War II from a submarine off the coast of Oregon, not far from where Kiernan's contemporary story takes place.
Reed was accused of plagiarizing the work of a graduate student and lost his faculty position over this manuscript. According to Kiernan's end-of-book note, the pilot's story is partially based on historical events. After the war, a Japanese pilot evidently did visit Oregon and gave an heirloom sword to the town he had previously attempted to bomb. In Kiernan's story-within-a-story, fictional pilot Ichiro Soga's humility leads to gradual forgiveness by the community he had attacked — a parable of reconciliation after war. In reading the now-forgotten story aloud, Deborah gains faith that a soldier can come home from battle and lay down the guns and the rage.
Speaking to Reed after a session of reading, she considers her responses to the professor's fable-like story, which she can't fully believe is true but doesn't want to dismiss as fictional:
I lowered the blinds. The room felt smaller, but not bleak. More private, protected. "Anyway, that's what your details do. They're supposed to convince me, but they might be camouflaging the part that's made up."
"Excellent syllogism, Nurse Birch. I can explain one thing, however, before you leave for the day—why those details matter very much."
I placed the string along the headboard so the Professor could open the blinds later if he chose. "I'm listening."
"Because they pertain to your husband. They demonstrate that, in order to understand a warrior, first you must understand his weapons."
"I don't know what that means."
"Whether the warrior is Ichiro Soga or your husband, regardless." The Professor shrugged. "First you must understand his weapons."
Then, peering into the little basket where I'd collected his remotes, he selected one, pointed it at the television, and turned away from me.
After reflecting on this conversation, Deborah asks her husband if she can accompany him to a target range, where he goes for relief from inexpressible emotions, so she can learn how to fire his rifle. This is a complicated, multilayered scene, where the tensions and themes of the novel are powerfully enacted.
And yet, while Kiernan's narrative proceeds by moving the characters through predicaments that are grave and consequential, at many moments the tone and manner of his storytelling topple over into melodrama. Reed is extremely belligerent, haughty and contemptuous, forever lecturing. Michael is extremely desperate, sullen and silent, traumatized by memories of the precision killings expected of a sniper. Pilot Soga in the embedded story is extremely dignified, even noble. When Reed's daughter briefly appears, she is extremely aggrieved, offering little but filial hatred. And Deborah is extremely sensitive, conscientious, persevering and resilient.
Except for Deborah and Michael's excursion to the firing range, which is genuinely surprising, rarely do any of these people do anything unexpected. The novel's characters seem typecast in exaggerated, prefabricated roles.
Likewise, much of the novel's dialogue reads like an outline for a "message" the author means to convey:
"Hi, sweetheart." I leaned down to kiss his forehead. "How was your day at the shop?"
[Michael] jerked back. "What do you mean?"
I kissed him anyway. "I don't mean anything. How was your day?"
"That's not the way you put it. You said, 'How was your day at the shop?'"
"So you're checking up on me now? What, did you go by and ask Gary where I was or something?"
"Honey, I don't know what you're talking about. I just had a rough day with my patient so I was just asking —"
"This has nothing to do with any stupid patient."
I took two steps backward. "Please don't disparage the people I care for."
"Why are you keeping track of me?"
"Michael." I leaned back against the stairway, body language as neutral as I could make it. The chest of his shirt was dark with sweat. "All I was doing was greeting you, making conversation. Why are you annoyed?"
"Like you don't know."
And so on, for several more pages. Many readers may not be bothered by the artificiality of this conversation, because the relationship between these spouses at cross-purposes has obvious urgency. But over the long course of a novel, the recurrent and drawn-out awkwardness of the dialogue, more discursive than dramatized, is fatiguing. And the writing in the professor's manuscript, which appears in installments interspersed with the other chapters, is plausible neither as the scholarly dissertation it's alleged to be nor as documentary narrative grounded in historical events.
Kiernan's Last Rights, his previous book about end-of-life matters, relates pivotal interactions among terminal patients and their relatives and caregivers, but in that book his accounts are shaped by careful reportage, impassioned but exacting. The trouble with many such encounters in The Hummingbird is that they seem overexplained. For instance, while Deborah's efforts to convince Reed to sign an advance directive are vivid and not without emotional impact, the exploration of advance directives in Kiernan's nonfiction book is much more moving, more closely observed. And, in contrast with the often-ponderous dialogue in the novel, the quoted speech in Last Rights is vigorous and thought provoking.
One can understand why a reporter who spent years investigating our society's anguished and confused ways of dealing with dying would be intrigued by the possibility of "novelizing" this material, thereby reaching different readers by different means. In texture and pacing, Kiernan's evocation of Professor Reed's decline near the end of the novel is restrained, compressed and potent, but on most of the preceding pages, even a sympathetic reader may see the novelist trying too hard, perhaps not trusting his stories.
He cleared his throat. "My prognosis, please. The unvarnished truth."
Barclay Reed had gone to that place right away. I read it to mean that he was prepared to hear everything. "You have kidney cancer with multiple metastases. The five-year survival rate is five percent."
"I presume the process is irreversible?"
"Yes." I expected a reaction, but the Professor only nodded.
"Well. You may experience more pain, worse than last night, because there are bones involved." I slowed because I was nearing the crux. "Last night you declined help for your symptoms, which is your prerogative. But I urge you to reconsider." I stood, stepping toward him. "For many patients—"
"Halt right there. No drama, Nurse Birch. Just give me the prognosis."
"All right." I went back to the bench. The stones beneath were coated with moss. I looked at his profile, the large old man's nose, his stubborn jaw. "What else would you like to know?"
"A great deal." The Professor bent forward, his face inches from the pink blossoms. He took a noisy sniff. "For now, tell me this: What goes last?"
"What do you mean?"
He blew on the petals, which fluttered from his breath. I thought, what ideal circumstances for this conversation. When it is time to hear some of life's hardest news, who would not want his face surrounded by flowers?
"At present, I am enjoying a floral scent. My sense of smell and my appreciation of it prove that I remain a sentient being. At some point I will cease to be sentient. What will be the last part of Barclay Reed to go?"
Kiernan speaks on Thursday, November 12, 6:30 p.m., at Phoenix Books Rutland
The original print version of this article was headlined "War Comes Home"