Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets (by Evan Roskos)

27 11 2013

drbirdEvan Roskos’s debut novel Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets ticks a lot of the cat’s boxes. First and foremost, with James Whitman, it has a great and believable (male) teen voice. Besides that, there’s some seriously smart use of literary references (Walt Whitman, in this case) but there’s also the delightfully subtle humor interwoven in a tragic story of teen suffering from depression and who’s desperate to move beyond the sadness that rules his life. That last bit about ‘depression’ has really popped up on the cat’s YA-radar lately, I guess, with quite a few (good!) books dealing with this very topic, and when it’s done as superbly as Roskos does it, it doesn’t really feel manufactured or hype-ish at all!

This book, also has one of the best first lines: “I yawp most mornings to irritate my father, the Brute.” From then on, James Whitman and Evan Roskos take you on a long and poetic road. The road leads from one very depressed tree-hugging (literally!) individual who feels trapped in his gruesome home situation (calling your parents the Brute and the Banshee is never an indication of great love and understanding) and an older sister (Jorie) who’s been kicked out of the house and whom James long to rehabilitate, both at school and at home, to an imaginary therapist (Dr. Bird, a pigeon James talks to and who gives him advice). Because James realizes that an imaginary therapist will not suffice to lead him out of his depression, he gets a job to pay for therapy himself (!).

Roskos makes really great use of literary references too, not just by calling his main character Whitman and using a quote here and there (because that would just be cheap), but by echoing ánd at first really questioning Walt Whitman’s fervor and life spirit in a boy who also wants to sing the body electric but doesn’t know how to.  James loves poetry, and he is an artistic person, who finds poetry within himself, yes, but he also realizes that there’s no miracle ‘cure’ to his feelings of anxiety: “But fuck you, Whitman, because my sister defiled her body with little cuts while trying to find joy that you so easily see in spears of grass. How come that couldn’t save her? How come trees can’t save me? How come we didn’t see bright joy in the world or in ourselves?” (p.214)

Obviously we all know that Whitman is fantastic and great and what have you, but Roskos makes you actually believe this too. He shows how Whitman and his poetry can be a driving force and an inspiration for a teen whose daily existence is a struggle, for someone who’s trapped in perpetual sadness but longs to yawp and yawp and yawp!  As such, Roskos shows a great deal of sincerity in the way teenage depression and anxiety is depicted ánd in the way Walt Whitman is used and represented.

In the end, what James realizes (and in this he is really no different from any other teenager) is, that he too might be a person who is carrying the entire world within him, and has endless possibilities, but rather than experiencing this as a heavy burden, he once might find a way to see it as an opportunity. Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but one day.. maybe he too will be able to sing the body electric.



One response

22 12 2013
The year 2013 in reading | Ringo the Cat's Blog

[…] good debuts this year, namely Jesse Andrews’ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and Evan Roskos’ Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets . And Matthew Quick also confirmed this year that he’s so incredibly good at describing feelings […]

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