I have to admit, I was a bit skeptical about a love letter to Walt Whitman with a heterosexual protagonist. I spent so much time in college dissecting the content of Whitman’s poetry that I graduated with the conviction that he is gay literary icon and that his often muddled poetry will only make real sense to gay readers. However, James Whitman, our narrator in Evan Roskos’ debut novel, Dr. Bird’s Advice For Sad Poets, is anything but a typical straight teenage boy.
Whitman (like his famous counterpart) deals with depression and anxiety. In James’ case it is the result of his abusive parents, who have kicked his older sister Jorie out of the house for getting expelled from school. Of course, Jorie acted out at school because of the trauma she endured at home, and the novel does an excellent job of reminding us that broken homes might look like happy ones on paper.
The darkly comic points of the novel are James’ imaginary therapy sessions with Dr. Bird, who is a large female pigeon. James does not always follow the imaginary advice Dr. Bird dispenses. He is almost unbelievably self-aware, but his desire to live inside his head rather than confront outside problems will be familiar for a lot of readers. A romance with Beth, a girl on the school literary journal, feels hollow and adds dead weight to the novel’s already slow pace. First-person narration also means that we have to take what James says at face value, but the bits and pieces we see do support his belief that his family life is toxic.
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” is about self-assertion, and without giving too much away, by the end of the novel James starts to see the value of self-assertion. This goes beyond the ability to be self-aware, but the ability to articulate himself as he relates to the world around him. This is a skill many adults have yet to master, and I suspect it will hit home for readers.
-Chelsea Condren, currently reading The Round House by Louise Erdrich
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