CBC Literary Award finalist Keir Lowther makes his debut with a novel that revolves around loved ones dead and alive, family or otherwise that haunts the modern psyche of one young boy, trapped in the grotesque world that surrounds him. Written in a creepy, deadpan, dark spiritual tone that will light a powder keg in the lukewarm waters of Canadian fiction, Dirty Bird is a family dystopia saga of anxiety and misplaced love, carved out in the spirit of spooky tradition of writers such as Tony Burgess, Joey Comeau and Lisa Foad.
Winner: 2013 Margaret and John Savage First Book Award
Shortlisted: 2013 Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize
Shortlisted: 2013 Relit Award in the Novel Category
Shortlisted: 2014 PEI Book Award for Fiction
Praise for Dirty Bird
“Keir Lowther’s Dirty Bird gets between your teeth. It leaves silt in your bed sheets and second-hand smoke in your hair. It’s a neo-Canadian gothic tale of dysfunction, hallucination, and denial. It will make you feel sick, weak all over, but you’ll love it. You’ll crawl around for days after finishing it, wishing for more. This book breaks into your brain – but you’ll have to read it to know what that really means.”
– Liz Worth author of Treat Me Like Dirt
“This debaucherous debut from Keir Lowther does not deal in pig-tailed orphans or raspberry cordial. Instead it delivers a darkly gothic PEI—made of grit, grime, and grotesquerie—in which the wronged dead crawl from their graves to track mud across your clean kitchen floor. Dirty Bird is a devilish, desperate plea from one very disturbed little boy who spends his summer longing for Happy Meals and coming of age among adults with human hearts and savage, animalistic appetites. This book reminds you of every bad thing you ever did and shames you for it. Dirty Bird will raze your brain and haunt your dreams and leave you begging for more.”
– Matthew J. Trafford, author of The Divinity Gene
Except from Dirty Bird
Knock, knock on the door and I got up from the sofa and walked from the living room through the kitchen and opened the door and who was there but my dead cousin Miles. His head was shaved like it was on the day of his wake and funeral. It was like that because when he hit his head it began to swell like a growing balloon that was about to pop. In order to relieve the swelling the doctors shaved his head and cut it open. Mum said it did relieve the swelling but he died anyway.
I wasn’t surprised to see him standing in front of me, smelling of dirt and worms, and told him so. I also told him how much I loved him, and hugged him, but he squirmed out of my hug like a worm and just stood there.
I asked him to take off his black boots. They were covered in dirt and they were getting Mum and her boyfriend Jody’s white kitchen floor dirty. I didn’t mean to take away from his coming back to life but I wanted to keep the floor clean because we just moved in with Jody and he told me that if I made a mess of his place he would make sure I wound up in the nuthouse. I knew all about the nuthouse because Miles had lived there for a while. I had gone to visit him a few times. Once I even brought him a Happy Meal.
“Take off your boots,” I said again. I told him where Jody would send me if I made a mess of his place. Miles didn’t seem to care though. I just hoped that Mum and Jody wouldn’t care either under the circumstances.
“How’ve you been?” I said.
He grunted and I knew that meant he was fine. He grunted again and I knew that meant he was kind of tired. I had other questions and so we just stood there, face to face in the kitchen, and I asked him more. It turned out that he broke through his casket and dug through the earth, eating worms along the way because it took him almost the whole year he was buried to dig himself out. When he got near the surface he dug and punched really hard to break through the earth that was cold and icy like a frozen pizza. Then he walked from the graveyard, past Grampy’s, past the peeing church, to my house.
“I’m glad you came to see me first,” I said.
He replied with a bunch of grunts that sounded like a rap song, but I knew what they meant. When he got diagnosed with his disease he felt like a rotten potato, all right on the outside but a dark smelly mush on the inside and even though people couldn’t always see the mush they treated him differently except for me. He felt bad that he didn’t get a chance to say bye before he left for Calgary and died and that was why he came to see me first.
Miles died on December 18th, over a year before the day he knocked on my door. That day doesn’t matter though, because really he died about a month before that. He was brain dead and it was just a formality, them keeping him alive on that life machine. I guess he only had two percent brainpower and so even if he lived and was able to breathe for himself, he would’ve been as swift as a cucumber or carrot. That’s what Mum said. That explained the grunting.
Miles was from PEI like me, but when he died he was out in Calgary. I guess he was off his pills and he only told Grampy he was going out west an hour before he left. Mum said it wasn’t Grampy’s fault for letting him go. Miles was twenty, a grown man. Grampy couldn’t make him take his pills and he couldn’t make him stay in PEI with us. Besides, Miles could’ve just as easily died washing dishes, Mum said. All it takes is a slip. What I took from this was that I would be a grown man soon too because Miles was only eight years older than me.
I hoped the day Miles died was a good day for him. It probably was because he just arrived in Calgary and his wallet was full of money from working all summer at a fish restaurant. He washed dishes and took out the garbage and he was so good at that that they even let him cut onions and potatoes and carrots. He worked until the restaurant closed at the end of the season. For the first time since his mind problem was diagnosed he was able to hold down a job. The work wasn’t great, he told me, but earning money was. He didn’t know if he wanted to be a doctor or a math-man because of his mind problem, and that’s all I’ll say on that. Except that they think I got a mind problem too.
The first thing Miles did when he got out to Calgary was find a hotel room and the second thing he did was go to his favourite strip club with bikini in its name. And I bet the women liked having him around because he was the coolest person I knew and was quiet most of the time except for when he would say out loud the raps he was always listening to on his headphones. So I bet he just sat and drank a pop and maybe shared a rap or two with the girls while he watched them take off their clothes and dance and spread their legs, showing off their buck-naked birds. He spent the day at the club and when it was getting dark he found a pay phone and called Grampy. He missed all of us and wanted to come home. He died before that could happen though. At least there wasn’t any pain, Mum said. It was just lights out.
I looked at Miles and told him that I loved him and missed him and that I just went over his final day in my mind. I told him that I had questions about it but that they didn’t matter anymore since he was alive right there in front of me. I tried to hug him again but he dodged it by squirming like a worm again. I guess he spent too much time with the worms and was beginning to act like one. I asked him if he would like to have a seat in the armchair in the living room since he was tired. He grunted, and so I took him by the hand and led him into the living room and took him right over to the seat. I pushed him on top of it and he fell into its coziness. He turned his head over to the side and looked out the big picture window at the sun. He grunted and I closed the curtains. Then I asked him what I wanted to ask him since I opened the door and saw it was him.
“What’s it like to die?”
He didn’t answer me. I thought there might be dirt in his ears but then he grunted. Once he started grunting he didn’t stop and I just listened. When I thought he was finished I said, “Wow–”
But he wasn’t finished, and he looked away from the curtains and into my eyes and grunted and I knew that he found death lonely and that was why he’d come back. He smiled for the first time that day. His eyes were dark like flies and his teeth were the colour of poop and it was the scariest smile I’d ever seen.
It wasn’t long after that Mum and Jody came home from eating. They were angry about all the dirt on the floor. Mum swatted me in the butt and Jody cursed at me like a rapper (though he didn’t say anything about sending me to the nuthouse) and when I told them that Miles made the mess Mum’s body started shaking like the washing machine. “Trina, come on,” Jody said, and he grabbed her by the shoulders and took her to their room. Even with the door closed I heard the yelling and crying. Then the bed started squeaking. Soon there was silence, and I asked Miles if he wanted to go spy on the neighbours or something. But his eyes were closed. He was asleep. I decided not to wake him. He hadn’t rested in almost a year.