He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford (1950)

July 22nd, 2014

threecovers

I stumbled onto this book while rooting around the Internet Archive, as I like to do from time to time, in search of interesting titles somewhere in the region between what’s in print and what’s been out there long enough to enter the public domain. He Feeds the Birds is one of those texts you can find in the Archive–but only for borrowing in Adobe Digital Edition format, which means for reading on a computer, which I can’t stand. (I don’t mind using a Kindle or Nook, but still prefer real books.)

So I went off to find a used copy, and quickly discovered this novel’s odd publication history. It was first published by the Dial Press, in hardback, in 1950. Then, two years later, Avon Books brought it out in paperback but decided for some reason (OK, the reason was to grab attention and sales) to change the title to The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. Seven years after that, Berkeley Medallion Books brought it out as a cheap paperback for a second time, only with yet another title: Easy Living. All three publishers learned that a dud by any other name is still a dud.

Well, like Billy Mumphrey, I’m a cock-eyed optimist–at least when it comes to looking for diamonds in the rough and dusty shelves, and I was determined to find out what got three different publishers to give this novel a shot, and ordered the cheapest copy I could find, which turned out to be a near-mint copy of The Drunk, the Damned and the Bedevilled. I’m easily awed when I find in excellent condition something that should be even more beat-up than me, and so I carefully opened its cover and began reading with some respect, not to say reverence.

It wasn’t the most promising beginning, I have to admit. The book opens with a fight between Rex Lannin and his wife, Betty, both in their cups, then introduces us to several other men and women of their acquaintance. The main thing that seems to bring them together is booze, time on their hands, and enough money to buy one to kill the other. Ford does make a point to specify that the story is set in the summer of 1939, but events in Europe affect their lives about as much as a termite infestion in a house on the other side of town. “A hell of a summer,” Rex grumbles a few weeks after Betty moves out on him:

Hot days, drunken nights and a crummy furnished room and Hitler in the headlines and in the back-buzz of barrooms and Hitler on the radio in the furnished room without Betty where getting drunk was the easiest thing to do and Hitler and Smigly-Ridz and Danzig and no Betty and Smigly-Ridz, Smigly-Ridz, Smigly Ridz. . . .

Gradually, though, Ford seems to gain confidence in himself and his story. Instead of just swirling around in some boozy imitation of a dance, his characters start to take directions. Some start heading on, some head out, and at least one, an heir to a small fortune starts spiraling down into self-destruction after the last of his money runs out:

Here was another day. Another day of living in the streets aglare with the hot sun and its cruel revealing light. Another day of walking without destination. Up one block, down another. Turn west for three blocks. Down four blocks. Across to the park. Now ten blocks north. Or ten blocks south. Across and up and down and across. No place to go. Public libraries. Toilets. Park benches. Streets. And always the ache of hunger chiseling inside him, driving him on and through the empty, timeless hours.

Rex, on the other hand, spends his time bar-hopping, moping around his little apartment, and pretending to write a play with one of his friends. A little monthly allowance from his mother is enough to keep his going and enough to keep him from wanting to make any great changes. He suggests that he could blame his stagnation “on the fact that I’m one of the half-generation that was a half-step behind the Lost Generation. Call it the Unclaimed Generation.”

The whole cast of characters appear to be unclaimed–unclaimed, that is, but any force or motivation strong enough or persuasive enough to ally with. Communism, fascism and capitalism are all equally unconvincing, at least compared to another round. Even love seems a dead-end street for most of them. But Rex is at least honest enough to admit that his problem is simple laziness: “Right now, I’m the laziest guy, pound for pound, in the world,” he jokes.

The book ends in early 1940, with war going on in Europe, newspapers speculating about Roosevelt running for a third term, and most of the characters having been forced to take some decision or action. One man attempts suicide. A woman who spends most of the book bouncing between lovers decides her salvation lies in staying with the husband she already has and having a baby. Rex, having been signed off on the divorce papers and sent them back to Reno, leaves New York to try writing away from his old haunts and drinking buddies. And one Joe Gould-like carries on as a bum and self-proclaimed poet.

Whether the reader or the characters really learns anything in the course of the story seems beside the point. Whatever reason Ford had for writing the book, it clearly wasn’t to deliver a moral lesson. He Feeds the Birds takes its title from a religious tract: “Live close to God, your faith renew, he feeds the birds and he’ll feed you” (which, in turn, comes from Matthew 6:26). Ford’s God takes care of some, seems to abandon others, has no effect at all on others.

My guess is that Ford wrote the book for no other reason that to try his hand at it. About a third of the way into it, he started to stretch out and give into his lyrical impulses, and my own assessment is that he was pretty successful at it. As an evocation of a particular time and place–America while it was standing outside the war in Europe–it’s far less successful than John P. Marquand’s So Little Time. But there are some great descriptions like the one above or another about waking up drunk and self-disgusted or a third about passing spots known in better days (“I wish I was as successful as I thought I was at twenty”). And he manages a multi-player cast in a multi-threaded story without getting either tangled up or lost. I think he rates a solid B and some extra marks for some of the passage. Not a diamond in the rough, but hardly a paste gem, either.

Terence Ford was in his early forties and working as a public relations man when he wrote the book. Before that, he had quite a varied resume:

I worked on a couple of newspapers, was an actor, an oiler on coastwise ships, a barker on Broadway for baseball batting cage, the manager of a Park Avenue antique shop, the maitre d’hotel of a 3rd Avenue bakery lunchroom, a barrel jockey in a shellac factory, the ultimate assistant editor of a trade journal, a barely perceptible contributor of satirical pieces to The Bookman and Vanity Fair. . . .

He Feeds the Birds was his first and only novel. He stuck with the PR business until he died of a heart attack in late 1958 at the age of 52.


He Feeds the Birds, by Terence Ford
New York: The Dial Press, 1950

also published as The Drunk, the Damned and the Bevilled
New York: Avon Books, 1952

also published as Easy Living
New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1959

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