Song of the Crow
by Layne Maheu
Published by Unbridled Books
244 pages, 2006
A Bird's-Eye View of Noah
Reviewed by David Abrams
In his debut novel, Layne Maheu gives the reader a bird's-eye view of Noah, his ark and the watery destruction of the Earth and its inhabitants. This time around, the oft-told story of the Flood (the Bible and Gilgamesh accounts are the best-known) is narrated by a crow -- unnamed, though he often refers to himself as "I Am!"
Blending mythology with a contemporary grittiness, Song of the Crow is, for the most part, a fascinating revision of the familiar. Like David Maine's The Preservationist (2004), Maheu's novel breathes fresh life into a Biblical tale which has become so bland and sanitized that Noah and his ark are most commonly found these days as bedspreads and wallpaper designs in nurseries. Maheu saves Noah from a needlepoint-and-animal-cracker fate and forces us to see what is probably the world's most catastrophic event with a new understanding and appreciation.
From the first page, Maheu has a sure-handed way of putting us inside a crow's head; the words of his sentences practically bubble off the page with vivid imagery:
And from the sky came our mother's call, low and urgent and gurgled through the broth of freshly dead things in her beak.
Maheu pares his prose down to short, chirpy sentences that truly sound like they could come from a crow's beak -- or, in the parlance of the narrator, "a horn." Nearly every anthropomorphic tale in the past 30 years owes more than a passing nod of debt to Richard Adams' Watership Down. Song of the Crow is no different; but Maheu's novel holds up to the comparison. The bird, who eventually becomes a stowaway on the ark, is as real and compelling to us as Adams' talking rabbits were to readers 30 years ago.
The crow spends the majority of the book's early chapters looking out at the world from his nest (lined with "the fleece of human and sheep, mane of horse, down of dogwood, but mostly the fray of twigs and grasses") which he shares with his brother, My Other. Our narrator is the weaker, less assertive of the two, always living in the black-winged shadow of his sibling. The day eventually comes, of course, when he must leave the nest. The cause of that traumatic event turns out to be none other than Noah -- a voice grumbling in the wilderness.
The crow initially calls Noah "Keeyaw," a phonetic warning cry coming from the beak of the bird who initially perceives the Biblical patriarch as a threat. When we first meet Noah, he is walking through the forest chopping down trees:
Keeyaw of the lank figure and mournful mustaches, low, groveling, hunkered over from the weight of his implements and the white, colorless beard that hung from his face in a way he had no control over. It just hung there and swung as he worked. And his eyes -- those suspicious, unseeing orbs he occasionally turned to the sky as though he were about to be scolded and were constantly being watched -- how could eyes sunk so far back in his skull ever see a thing?
In one of the book's more stirring passages, Maheu gives the reader a real sense of the crow's terror when his tree ("Our Giant") is felled, bringing tragedy in its leafy wake.
But of course, the novel's big-budget, special-effects action scene is the Deluge, which finally comes at us with splashing, cascading fury near the end of Song of the Crow. These are scenes well worth waiting for -- even Cecil B. DeMille in all his Hollywood glory couldn't have done it better:
Wringing-wet animals and humans cried out and took refuge in the trees as the earth sank from sight. But most of the animals floated by, their gray, wet heads above the flood, dog-paddling as best they could as they were carried off. On one branch, a large, ferocious cat snarled, sopped to the bone like a water rat, unable to move or let any other creature near. On another tree, a man handed a small child up to a higher branch where the mother waited. There the woman sat, cradling the child's head as if it were an egg.
Maheu brings global destruction down to a personal, tragic level with an admirable economy of words.
Some of the novel's devices and artifices lack the rest of Maheu's easy way with words -- for example, 30 pages into Song of the Crow, the bird's abrupt ability to know what Noah is saying ("Suddenly I could understand the mammal's moans and grunts and strange staccato sounds"). It is only in those rare lapses of the author's struggle to tie the loose ends of his literary creation that we're pulled from the page and we remember, with a jolt, that we're not crows after all.
However, those weak spots in the narrative are easy to forgive in the face of Maheu's ambition to take the familiar and make it crackle with suspense. Biblical destruction has never been more fresh and compelling. | June 2006
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.