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Night Bird Cantata

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Abandoned without warning by his self-involved mother and cruel, dictatorial grandmother, L.P. is sent off to spend a magical summer in the care of Betty, his grandmother's maid, in black South Phoenix. A former jazz singer at war with inner demons of her own, Betty is the only adult in L.P.'s small universe who has a place in her heart for the troubled boy, offering him a friendship born of shared pain, and the dazzle and the wonder of his childhood's end.
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1998 Hard cover New. No dust jacket. New, unread book. Book is clean & tight, text unmarked. Sewn binding. Paper over boards. With no dust jacket. 245 p. Audience: ... General/trade. (K-11) Read more Show Less

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The Night Bird Cantata

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Overview

Abandoned without warning by his self-involved mother and cruel, dictatorial grandmother, L.P. is sent off to spend a magical summer in the care of Betty, his grandmother's maid, in black South Phoenix. A former jazz singer at war with inner demons of her own, Betty is the only adult in L.P.'s small universe who has a place in her heart for the troubled boy, offering him a friendship born of shared pain, and the dazzle and the wonder of his childhood's end.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A highly effeminate man looks back on the summer of 1968, when he was 10, in this lush, shamelessly overwrought first novel from Pushcart Prize winner Rawley, a poet and contributing editor at Buzz. L.P. Fowler's mother and grandmother (the latter "a tarantula in mink") have left him behind in sweltering Phoenix in the care of his grandmother's maid, Betty. Stymied by such artifacts of masculinity as baseball mitts, L.P. finds the unnatural role of "boy" nearly impossible to play and dreams instead of becoming a beautiful actress. A sensitive child, to put it mildly, L.P. suffers from ecstatic confrontations with beauty. At a flower nursery, for instance, he rolls "into a gully of crushed and trampled flowers" and emerges "covered with pollen and sap. I was pink and lavender and bright yellow. My hair was covered with leaves and dust and my clothes were smeared with manure." If few readers will easily swallow "a day of lilacs and graves," or a sun that turns the sky "a Frank Sinatra orange," Rawley is more affecting when he turns his attention to Bettya woman hardened by a loveless marriage of convenience, the blithe racism of her employers and a thwarted singing career. As the summer unfolds, she becomes a surrogate mother to L.P., whom she loves for, rather than in spite of, the passions that animate him. First serial to American Short Fiction; Agent: Noah Lukeman; author tour. (July)
Library Journal
The summer of 1968 for ten-year-old Lindsay Paul (LP) Fowler is a summer of enchantments, openings, loss, and love. Temporarily abandoned by his mother and grandmother, LP spends this summer in the care of their maid, Betty. This means that while he is freed from an ongoing emotional tug-of-war, he is left with the fear of rejection. Betty, a complex woman struggling with the losses of her past and the racism of the present, provides a kind of offhand love and freedom that allows LP a chance to explore the world around him unfettered by expectations or rigid judgments. LP's discoveries include his ability to endure, his homosexuality, the cruelties behind beauty, and the beauties that withstand cruelties. First novelist Rawley's language is evocative but occasionally vacillates between overly mature reflections and truly capturing a young boy's wisdom. Recommended for larger fiction collections.Jan Blodgett, Davidson Coll., Davidson, NC
Kirkus Reviews
A deeply felt but wearyingly overwrought first novel by the recently deceased Rawley, a poet who'd been a contributing editor at Buzz, chronicles a ten-year-old boy's lonely but transformative summer spent with his family's maid. The setting is 1968 Phoenix. L.P., who wants to grow up to be a beautiful woman, has been raised by his childlike mother and his cruel, overperfumed grandmother, but both are away for the summer. And so L.P. is now cared for by Betty, the family's black maid, and her husband Frank. Betty, who'd once had a career as a singer, logs long hours with L.P.; sensitive child that he is, he begins to tune into the ways that she's alchemized her many losses and disappointments into defiant high style. He watches in awe as she sings in church and throws glamorous outdoor cocktail parties; he questions her about her life and loves, and though she's sometimes evasive and occasionally drunk, she accepts him in a way his needy, preoccupied mother never has. He also hangs out with two neighborhood boys who don't mind that he runs like a girl, learns to bowl and raid the liquor cabinet, and has a thrilling but troubling sexual experience with a local teen. When Betty's husband dies suddenly, L.P. provides the comfort of company and shares Betty's fantasy that he might live with her forever. But the summer is also haunted by his longing for his mother and grandmother. When they finally return, they're more cruel and self-absorbed than ever, but L.P. has learned from Betty a habit of survival. This portrait of a child's powerlessness and capacity for wonder is poignant, but the set-pieces that comprise the story strain for lyricism at the expense of pace and characterdevelopment. The impact of this coming-of-age tale is diminished, then, by some relentless and heavy-handed atmospherics.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380976096
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 7/28/1998
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.56 (h) x 0.89 (d)

Meet the Author

The late Donald Rawley is considered one of the finest literary talents to come out of Los Angeles. He is author of the novel THE NIGHT BIRD CANTATA (Avon/Bard Books in the US and Flamingo/HarperCollins in the UK), SLOW DANCE ON THE FAULT LINE (stories) (Avon/Bard Books in the US and Flamingo/HarperCollins in the UK), TINA IN THE BACK SEAT (stories) (Avon/Bard Books), THE VIEW FROM BABYLON (essays) (Warner Books), and THE END OF MISS KIND, his final, brilliant, novella, published posthumously by Flamingo/HarperCollins in the UK. A former contributing editor at Buzz Magazine, Mr. Rawley was published in a wide array of prestigious magazines, including The New Yorker, Harpers, Story, American Short Fiction, Yellow Silk, Press and The Los Angeles Times Magazine, and twice made the "Distinguished 100" list in BEST AMERICAN SHORT STORIES. An award-winning poet and successful screenwriter, he also published four books of poetry and wrote three screenplays, all of which were optioned for feature film. He won a Pushcart Prize for fiction and carried endorsements from Jerry Stahl, Kate Braverman and Sandra Tsing Loh. He resided in Los Angeles and passed away in May of 1998.
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Read an Excerpt

It was the summer of my mother's second husband. It was the summer of full moons, night birds and paralyzed daylight; I discovered absence and the magic of pain, gifts only the unloved can unwrap and save as some thing precious.

I stayed with Betty and Frank on a screened back porch with red sheets on the sleeper sofa and my own television. Betty was my grandmother's maid. She and her husband, who worked the day shift hosing down the embalming room at an all-black mortuary, welcomed me with no rules. They tried their best to make a white boy feel comfortable; in return I was expected to go out and play, run, stay up at night. I was to be a boy, some thing I had never thought of, and it was an intoxication.

There had been a scent of man drifting through my mother's hair for almost six months. She smiled with a slow, backwards shimmer, talking to me as though I were one of the poodles. When I asked questions, she assumed a high, squeaky, singsong voice that she used to avoid telling me anything. My mother knew how to avoid. She had charm. It was a gift. In turn, I did my best to stay as far away from her as I could. I was no longer in control. Her lipstick became bright with purpose. She walked ahead of me, never looking around to see if I was there. She had even called me by someone else's name, and didn't blush when she realized her mistake. I was an only child, and suddenly I found myself not part of Mama's plans.

My mother married a timid Irishman that summer. His name was Bob Rafferty, and I referred to him as ha-ha Rafferty. The name made me laugh. He was tall and blue-eyed, with dense black hair, and white, pallid skin that stretched itself over a muscular body. Bob waspoor. My mother loved poor men. They married on a foggy day in June, at a wedding chapel in San Diego, not far from the Mexican border.

Perhaps it was high tide when she looked into Bob's average eyes and said she would love him and live with him. I imagined a smell of salt cross over them, the intense Pacific sun browning their faces and waves crashing on combed beaches, the big waves that carry children like me far away, into nets of seaweed and cold water.

I did not understand. I suddenly had to put my life to reason. I lost my stutter, grew tanned, hairless legs and absorbed new words like escape, flight, darkness.

It was my summer, the one I would be able to remember, and the summer whose details would be perfected into something rational and kind, as if by apology. I would be held to this distinct time, my childhood squandered except for this one memory; three months of days whose clarity is both perverse and frightening, held without photographs or postcards or any other telling semblance to prove I existed, there, in Phoenix in 1968, and that I survived.

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  • Posted August 29, 2013

    Incredibly sad, but so lyrical & beautifully written. Heartf

    Incredibly sad, but so lyrical & beautifully written. Heartfelt. Would like to read more of his work now that I've read this. Was this autobiographical, does anyone know? Touching.

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