Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Wednesday, September 5, 2012: Maximum Shelf: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man

Crown: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Crown: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Crown: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Crown: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man

by Brian McGrory

Brian McGrory, a longtime Boston Globe columnist and author of several Boston-based political thrillers, makes his first outing as a memoirist with Buddy, the tale of (among other things) an unlikely alliance between man and bird. Expertly shifting back and forth in time with several shorter vignettes tying into the larger story of how McGrory met his fiancée, Pam, and her two girls, the book opens on the newly formed family's first morning in their just-built house in subyurban Massachusetts. The day begins with the screeching of a rooster named Buddy. It is immediately clear that McGrory and the rooster have an antagonistic relationship--one that makes the human feel like an outsider in his own home and within his new family. There follows a how-did-I-get-here? moment that anyone can relate to. In his case, McGrory tells us, it began with a dog.

Although there have been several recent books with a similar topic, McGrory's sincere and deeply moving story of his dog Harry is a welcome addition. A golden retriever purchased as a Christmas surprise for his then-wife, Harry was a perfect puppy from the moment McGrory laid eyes on him shivering in his crate at Logan airport. The two bonded immediately. Easily trained and a pleasure to have around, Harry quickly became McGrory's most enduring relationship. The same could not be said for his marriage, which began coming apart soon after. Although painful, McGrory's divorce ushered in an idyllic time for him that included passes to his beloved Fenway Park, a host of lovely girlfriends, several well-received novels, many advancements in his career and exciting moments such as receiving an Hermès tie from an anonymous female admirer. But most importantly, he had Harry, his constant companion, who even accompanied him to his getaway cottage in coastal Maine.

But after 10 happy years, McGrory came home one day to find Harry immobile and scared. A trip to veterinarian Pam Bandock brought more than support for Harry, it also brought a relationship that would change McGrory's life forever. Later, Dr. Bandock made a house call to check on McGrory. In the ensuing conversation, he discovered that his longtime vet was the secret admirer (now divorced) who had sent him the tie. Soon after, the two began dating, became serious, and then engaged.

But, as McGrory points out, relationships come with complications. Pam has two young girls--a family unit that McGrory can't help but feel he is intruding on. In fact, when Pam tells the girls that she and McGrory plan to marry, all three of them wind up in tears. Another key factor in this new arrangement is Buddy, who originated as a science project when one of the girls decided to hatch an egg. Animal lovers all, the family can't bear to let the adorable chick go after it hatches. Like a particularly funny time-lapse sequence, McGrory describes coming home time after time to find the chicken in progressively bigger and more comfortable surroundings inside the house and then, finally, in a sweet, permanent set-up in the garage. But the best is yet to come.

One day their Brazilian housekeeper leaves a note saying, "I hope you don't mind that I gave your rooster cheese." Pam explains that chickens have hidden sex organs but "Brazilians know their chickens," so off to the vet they go to get a blood test. Sure enough, Buddy is a rooster, and an incredibly ornery one at that. He pecks, he crows, he screams unmercifully and wants nothing more than for McGrory to leave for good. The females, who dote upon Buddy, are his flock. Buddy soon becomes the metaphor for everything Brian finds uncomfortable and alien about his new life. As readers, we feel his pain. We, too, hope for a coyote to make a quick meal of Buddy or for the health department to take him away or for a passerby to accidentally run him over. We want him to become... dinner. But this is not to be. Along with complications, relationships bring compromise. So McGrory builds Buddy a palatial chicken house on the grounds of their brand-new home. So beautifully tall and spacious is this McMansion that the county livestock inspector proclaims it's the most amazing chicken house she's seen in decades on the job. To McGrory's chagrin, Buddy becomes a minor neighborhood celebrity.

Buddy, it appears, has it all. But soon McGrory realizes that, despite bumps along the way, so does he. Though sometimes utilizing the type of manipulation and open bribery with which all parents are familiar, he develops a warm, loving relationship with Pam's girls that grows stronger every day. And despite his dismay at discovering that chickens can live up to 15 years, he even comes to an understanding approaching empathy for Buddy, who is also often out of his element. Ultimately, McGrory realizes that both he and Buddy are home and that all is right with the world. For now. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Crown, $24, hardcover, 9780307953063, November 13, 2012

Crown: Buddy: How a Rooster Made Me a Family Man by Brian McGrory

Brian McGrory: A Book to Crow About

Brian McGrory was a roving national reporter for the Boston Globe, and the Globe's White House correspondent during the Clinton administration. He is now a columnist in the newspaper's Metro section. The author of three bestselling thrillers--The Incumbent, The Nominee and Dead Line--McGrory lives in Boston with his family.

You're a journalist, a novelist and now a memoirist. Is there a form you prefer? Which genre has been the most challenging for you?

It's an excellent question. Journalism is what comes most naturally. It's what I've done since I was, well, in grade school and started my own newspaper to cover the fifth grade elections. It's what I've done for pretty much my entire adult life--covering Boston, roving the country as a national reporter, working as a White House correspondent and holding the job of a metro columnist. I wouldn't have traded it for anything in the world.

Novel writing, though, allowed for some expansion, if that makes sense. I wasn't bound by the limits of reality. I could create my own world, enter rooms where a reporter isn't allowed, fill it with characters of my own making, and move them around however I wanted, all of it influenced by what I had seen and done in my own career. It was enlivening. That said, plotting a book (I wrote four political thrillers) can be almost like algebra, and is a talent unto itself, one I didn't necessarily have from the get-go. You change one thing, and it's like pulling a thread. Everything can become undone. But it is enormously satisfying at the same time.

Memoir writing, well, this came the least naturally, mostly because I find it more than a little difficult to write about myself. All my life, as a journalist and novelist, I've written about others--people real or imagined. So this took some doing. That said, you write it like a novel, with a plot, an arc and a theme--only it's real. And in some ways, actually, in many ways, because you've lived it and felt it, once you get in the groove and get over yourself, the basic facts and plot are right in front of you.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself in the process of writing this book?

This book made me basically relive three years of my life on a somewhat intimate level, and to think hard about many years before that, all in a way I definitely wouldn't have otherwise done. You learn a lot about yourself in this kind of exercise, not just in recalling individual moments, but in being allowed a longer view in how those moments connect to each other and where they lead.

This allowed me to learn, for instance, that I'm a giant chicken--forgive the lame pun. I was frightened of Pam for all that she represented. I was frightened of her kids, who were initially like two little space aliens to me. I was frightened of suburbia, their native planet. I was frightened about what would happen when you pulled me out of my natural habitat, which was total independence in the city.

What I learned is that good things happen when you conquer your fears, or at least my fears, and that inertia, which was starting to set in with me before all this, could seriously diminish a life. Do I occasionally long for my old ways? Of course. I think everyone does, and time lends some gloss to memories. But making this series of life-altering moves was the best thing that could have happened. It doesn't mean I'm about to go out and climb Mount Kilimanjaro, but it does mean I'm not so afraid of the next new thing.

Tell us about the role that humor played both in writing this book and in your life at this point.

Well, I hope there's some humor in the narrative. I hope that because life, much of life, is funny. As I mentioned above, I was so afraid of Pam's two daughters, and then I'm around them, and I realize quickly that they are an absolute riot, and even the situations that don't necessarily seem funny in the moment--and there are more than a few of those--are funny in retrospect. So I hope some of that is reflected on the pages. I learned a long time ago, while writing my column for the Boston Globe, that humor can be a very effective way of reaching people and making a point. As a matter of fact, some of the most effective columns I've written are those that are filled not with anger, but with wit. Like I said, life is funny, and that essential fact shouldn't be ignored.

Much of Buddy is about your fiancée, Pam, and her daughters. How do they feel about the memoir?

This is a very important question, and one that plagued me the entire time I was alone in my study writing the manuscript. It was critical to me to at once tell the truth about my life and, by extension, part of theirs, while not invading their privacy. I never told the kids I had undertaken this project until after it was over, because I didn't want them changing one bit. They still haven't read it, but they're very excited about being a part of it. While their presence is felt throughout the story, I don't think the kids themselves are all that exposed--which was on purpose. Pam is another story. I waited until I was done and gave her the manuscript before I shipped it to New York. She was quite pleased with it all--or at least that's what she told me. Hers is an interesting perspective. She's a veterinarian, a person with an uncommonly huge heart when it comes to animals, and she was so enchanted with Buddy, her relationship with him so unique and strong, that she wanted to get out the message that people can have unusual bonds with all kinds of creatures, so that's what made her the happiest.

How is your relationship with Buddy now?

That's part of the sadness of it all. Buddy and I eventually arrived at a nice place. When I went out on the back deck to cook hamburgers, he stopped trying to castrate me. He no longer chased me around the yard--his yard, in his view--when I took the dogs out to toss around the tennis ball. I don't think he particularly liked me; that would be asking far too much. But I think he came to accept me as a member of his household who wasn't there to harm anyone.

And then he died this past May. He dropped dead of what appears to be a heart attack on an otherwise beautiful Sunday morning, and I was legitimately sad about it all. He had come to represent our household in so many ways, and enlivened all the spaces in the yard, and just like that, he was gone.

Finally, a chicken-related question that I can't resist asking: Why does one feed a rooster chicken nuggets?

One feeds a rooster chicken nuggets because this rooster was getting fed pretty much whatever he wanted. Initially, he was on a diet of cracked corn and oatmeal, which he liked, but Pam worried it got boring. So she began mixing some cheese in with it, sometimes little bits of American, but other times some of the more expensive imported stuff. I suspect that the genesis of the nuggets came when young Caroline probably gave him a few bits of her dinner one night while he was on the kitchen floor, and he liked it. A lot. And whatever Buddy liked, Buddy got. --Debra Ginsberg, author

Author photo: Suzanne Kreiter

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