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Confinement and flight // Amid the poverty, a Bird is waiting to fly

BEFORE WOMEN HAD WINGS

By Connie May Fowler

Putnam, $22.95

Reviewed by Joyce R. Slater

The publication of Floridian Connie May Fowler's first novel, Sugar Cage, in 1992 prompted comparisons to William Faulkner and Amy Tan. Her follow-up, River of Hidden Dreams, reinforced the early praise. Now Before Women Had Wings ranks her with Southern writers like Kaye Gibbons and Lee Smith. Fowler shares their skill and strength, but her voice is uniquely her own.

Here Fowler's narrator hovers on the brink of adolescence as she introduces herself: "My true name is Avocet. Avocet Abigail Jackson. But because Mama couldn't find anyone who thought Avocet was a fine name for a child, she called me Bird. Which is okay by me. She named both her children after birds, her logic being that if we were named for something with wings then maybe we'd be able to fly above the s_t in our lives."

Giving a novel a prepubescent voice is risky business: There's a very fine line between precocious and annoying, between maturity and hindsight. J. D. Salinger mastered the trick with Holden Caulfield, as did Gibbons with Ellen Foster. Fowler's Bird is perfectly capable of continuing their fine, funny tradition.

Any successful kiddy narrator always starts out in a real big mess, and Bird is no exception. She can't make much sense out of her jumble of a life, but she's determined to tell you all about it. "Answers aren't part of my nature," she explains. "Details are what I'm about _ stacks and stacks of details _ the bones of my family, calcified vessels, the marrow chock-full of wishes and regrets."

Avocet is 9 going on 39 when her tormented father finally makes good on his promise to kill himself. He'd been waving that old revolver around so long and so ineffectually, rolling his "thunderhead-wild" blue eyes, that nobody believed he'd ever do it. When he's found in his car down by the river, Avocet and her older sister Phoebe are left to the tender mercies of their mother, Glory Marie.

There's no room for sentimentality in the hardscrabble life Fowler describes and no time for grieving, either. No money, no funeral, simple as that. Glory Marie sells her husband's white Impala. Avocet, for her part, angrily spits in the dirt and demands of Jesus, "So now what?"

The "what" turns out to be a trailer in a seedy part of Tampa. In one dramatic, blindingly simple stroke, Fowler disabuses readers of a couple of misconceptions. Florida's the promised land, you say? Heaven on Earth? You must be thinking of Miami or Palm Beach. The Florida that is Avocet's reality might as well be Appalachia, for all the comfort and hope it affords. When one of your teeth falls out in Avocet's world, it never occurs to you to go to a dentist. You just do what Glory Marie did: Make a new tooth for yourself out of sealing wax, jam it in your mouth, and keep on truckin'.

So much for Florida as Eden. How about "trailer park trash"? Before Fowler is done with you, she'll shame those among us who ever used that phrase, even in jest. (Notice I said "us.") There are real live human beings living inside those glorified sardine cans, and a flicker of hope can survive in the most claustrophobic atmosphere. In trailer parks, as in Buckingham Palace, it's always hardest on the women.

So vivid are Fowler's descriptions, so keen her ear, that she will almost convince you that Bird's situation is hopeless. Almost. No wonder the child retreats into herself, studies the birds and the lizards for some clue about how things are supposed to work. You'll despise the drunken, abusive Glory Marie even as you pity her. "I think I beat you," she tells Bird, "because I'm beat." In that one straightforward sentence, Fowler does more to explain child abuse than any number of psychological tomes and docudramas.

You'll root for Bird and her hardheaded sister Phoebe. When they finally make their escape _ when they fly _ I wanted to stand and applaud. I can't remember the last time I felt that way, even at the movies.

Joyce R. Slater is a writer who lives in Kennesaw, Ga.

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