Birdland by Michael Knight, 1998
The magic trick:
Building its portrait of a town around college football
Welcome to Elbow, Alabama. There’s not a lot going on in Elbow, as our narrator portrays it here at least. There is a country store where the locals watch Alabama football, and some parrots who migrate every year from Rhode Island.
The parrots have attracted the attention of a young woman, researching their habits. Our narrator has fallen in love with the young woman. It’s a manic pixie dreamgirl situation of a type that feels pretty dated to read in the 2020s.
We’re not at all sure what she thinks about this town. We only know that what she thinks and does has a strong effect on our narrator.
But the romance really isn’t even the star of the show, even as it would be the focal point if this story were made into a movie. The star is Elbow. It’s the setting that I remember days after reading the story.
And the story does a neat thing of stitching together scenes around the Alabama football season. As a fan of college football, this pleases me. But as a fan of short stories, I salute it as a clever means of describing the town, the local characters, and how they process all their hopes and dreams.
And that’s quite a trick on Knight’s part.
I want to tell her that the past is not only for forgetting. There are some things, good and bad, that you can’t leave behind. According to the record books, Bear Bryant didn’t sign a black player until 1970 because the State of Alabama was not ready even for gridiron integration. A decade earlier, however, he had recruited a group of Negro running backs who were light-skinned enough to pass for white. They hid their faces beneath helmets and bunked in a special dorm miles away from campus. They were listed in the program under names Bear himself selected. Lookout’s playing name was Patrick O’Reilly.
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