The review at Open Letters Monthly
An excerpt and recommendation by Michael Cunningham
I’m not as enthusiastic about The Pilgrim Hawk as the links above are. It’s a well-told story working on several layers, especially when noting the focus of the subtitle (“A Love Story”) is secondary to the more subtle focus on the storyteller. The oh-so-obvious symbolism of the hawk pretty much works, although there are clumsy, heavy-handed uses at times. One of those references plays off the analogy between a captive hawk and a husband. While their natural state is freedom, they can be trained with patience, gentleness, and care. Both accept their captivity because their needs and appetites are provided for easier than if they were free. Both will bate, that is to attempt to fly away from captivity, but the straps that hold them in place will keep them in place. The lengthy discourses on falconry proved interesting despite the heavy-handed analogy, and additional interpretations emerge as the story progresses.
The more interesting part of the story comes from the narrator’s reflection of an earlier version of himself. While the story takes place one afternoon in 1928 or 1929 (the narrator can’t remember which), the narration occurs in the early 1940s. By the end of telling the story the narrator realizes he has abstracted all meaning from that afternoon, missing the reality behind the actions. An alternative subtitle could have been “A Portrait of the Artist as a Bitter Young Man (and a Jaded Old One)” as the older narrator analyzes the younger version of himself. As the article in Open Letters Monthly succinctly puts it, “Tower [the narrator] uses the tools of novel writing and undercuts them in the same breath.” His ruminations on love, and what we often mistake for love, could also be applied to life.
There’s some fun wordplay at times, such as this example from the second paragraph of the novel, which helps lead into the species Falco peregrinus, pilgrim hawk: “In the twenties it was not unusual to meet foreigners in some country as foreign to them as to you, your peregrination just crossing theirs; and you did your best to know them in an afternoon or so; and perhaps you called that little lightning knowledge, friendship.” And the reader has to wonder how much of the self-reflection of the narrator overlaps with that of the author:
I wondered about this. Although I had been a poor boy, on a Wisconsin farm and in a slum in Chicago and in Germany in 1922, I could not recollect any exact sensation of hunger, that is to say, hunger of the stomach. And I thought—as the relatively well-fed do think—of the other human hungers, mental and sentimental and so on. For example, my own undertaking in early manhood to be a literary artist. No one warned me that I really did not have talent enough. Therefore my hope of becoming a very good artist turned bitter, hot and nerve-racking; and it would get worse as I grew older. The unsuccessful artist also ends in an apathy, too proud and vexed to fly again, waiting upon withheld inspiration, bored to death.
I wasn't captivated by it like others are but the novella is extremely well done. Your mileage may vary.