One consequence of setting a novel in 1960 Hibbing is that when a teenager named Bobby comes briefly onto the page, readers will have been waiting for him. But is it the young Dylan? It hardly matters. What does is the sense of anticipation the possibility evokes. It is a feeling shared by the characters in Kathleen Novak’s “Rare Birds,” who long for something that they can only hope they know when they see.
It is the beginning of summer and the long days stretch out slowly and monotonously for the kids who are out of school as well as for the adults whose lives continue on as it seems they always will. But this is Hibbing, we are reminded, and lives that seem settled on the surface can be abruptly displaced if the right elements are buried beneath.
Change does come in the 12 days over which the book is set. When the new girl enlists two neighbors to join her in exploring an abandoned house, their discoveries begin to uncover some of the hidden truths of the town, which is Novak’s real subject in the book. The several “rare birds” we meet along the way are impressionistic strokes in the vivid portrait of the community.
The adults, too, see their lives disrupted in subtle and not so subtle ways. A man returns to the neighborhood after being institutionalized; a woman is desperate for her lover to leave his wife; another man runs a grocery store he detests; another woman walks around her block again and again calling out “How you” to everyone she meets; a group of teenagers is bored and looking for trouble. “How did so many crazy people gravitate to a single mining town north of nowhere,” one character wonders.
But we know these characters well enough to know that none of them is crazy and that what we find in Hibbing — angst and regret, cruelty and compassion, death and something that might be love — we would find anywhere. Seen from a distance, the events — even the big ones — of life become the texture of a time and place.
Novak offers her 1960 Hibbing with real fondness. Here, she is saying, take this moment and relish it. Perhaps while sipping iced tea on the porch on a summer afternoon.
Scott Parker is a Montana-based writer and book critic.
By: Kathleen Novak.
Publisher: The Permanent Press, 272 pages, $28.
Event: 11:30 a.m. Aug. 6, Walker Art Center, Mpls.