Sunday, December 30, 2012

Review: Buddy by Brian McGrory

My uncle kept chickens when I was small.  We'd go to visit him and be given the task of collecting eggs from the coop.  This sounded like a great and fun thing to do until we remembered the rooster.  He probably had a name but I don't recall it.  All I know is that he was pure evil, gleefully attacking defenseless children.  At least until we got smart and started wielding the 2x4 kept just inside the chickens' enclosure.  A few swipes (and maybe a hit or two) as he charged and he was wary about pecking, buying us enough time to collect the couple of eggs and get out.  It was with this image in my head and a whole lot of skepticism that I opened up Brian McGrory's new narrative non-fiction, Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man.

The title and the cover are slightly misleading though as the book really details a large chunk of McGrory's life rather than being purely a memoir of his life with Buddy the rooster.  Journalist McGrory was divorced and single, living in downtown Boston with his beloved dog Harry.  He was an urbanite to the core and happy in his more than comfortable life in the city.  His lovely, devoted golden retriever Harry was a joy with him for only ten short years, succumbing to cancer and leaving McGrory bereft.  Through Harry's final illness, McGrory grows closer to Harry's vet Pam, finding her a sympathetic person and kindred spirit in the care of his much loved dog.  It is only some time after Harry's death that Pam's marriage dissolves and she and McGrory ultimately fall in love.  And that brings about the biggest changes in McGrory's life thus far: a move from the city to full-on suburbia, stepdaughters, and a menagerie of animals not of his own choosing, including Buddy the rooster.

Buddy does not like McGrory, aggressively attacking him to protect his flock (Pam and her girls).  And the feeling is mutual, with McGrory disliking Buddy in equal measure.  But more than his conflict with this territorial chicken, this is a memoir about compromise, the re-making of a family, the nature of devotion, and change at mid-life.  While McGrory doesn't come off as particularly appealing here, the others in the book come off worse.  Pam's daughters seem to be entitled, spoiled brats who are never called to account for their obnoxious behaviour.  Pam, as a vet, is strangely oblivious not only to Buddy's needs as a chicken but over the top indulgent of his bad behaviour.  McGrory himself spends a lot of time bemoaning the loss of his formerly uneventful and pleasant single life in the city and he portrays himself, perhaps unintentionally, as a doormat, subsuming his own happiness in lieu of keeping his new life on an even keel.  There seems to be little to no recognition of this new marriage as a partnership.  At least in the case of Buddy, it is all about Pam's love for this rather nasty seeming rooster.  And that's exasperating as a reader.

Nothing about adding a new person to a family is easy, especially when the person being added has spent years on his own, living life without anyone to whom to be accountable, and ordering his existence with only a thought to his own happiness.  But McGrory seems to head 180 degrees the other way in trying to forge a new married life with stepchildren  It is all about Pam and the girls' happiness completely at the cost of his own.  The third of the book that is a love letter to his dog Harry is lovely and heartfelt.  His subsequent struggle to become part of a larger family is less lovely.  All of it is well-written but the unevenness of interest in the narrative handicaps the book as a whole.  That said, there is heart here and although I personally would have had fried chicken long ago with Buddy featuring as the main dish, it is interesting what McGrory claims to have learned from the obstreporous chicken and how he has changed (willingly) as a man and a husband as a result.  Readers who enjoy any sort of pet memoir will find humor and pathos in equal measure here but readers looking for one that is centered solely on the chicken on the cover need to know that Buddy isn't really the main focus here.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this book for review.

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