Duck by Nic Bettauer

Duck by Nic BettauerI am a sucker for quirky novellas.  I have always been intrigued by short works about unorthodox subjects.  Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t but my interest remains.

I bring this up because I recently finished just such a book: Duck by Nic Bettauer.  Duck, which was a movie before it was a book, is described by the publisher thus:

It is the very near future and the country has lost its social services, social graces, public parks, and common sense. Arthur is a widower who, having outlived his family and friends, now finds himself without a home. But — he does have a duck, and together they travel the city in search of water and meaning in the desert that is Los Angeles. DUCK is a sad-funny story of hope and survival set in our as-of-yet avertable future. In a duck who believes him to be its mother, an old man discovers dignity and the will to live on.

It is a sort of melancholic dystopian sentimental minimalist story; if that makes any sense.  Arthur is alone and the world seems to have passed him by.  No one cares about him, needs him, or is interested in what he has to say.  Everything that gave his life meaning has disappeared.

Until he meets a duck.  In a way that only animals seem to do, the duck makes him feel alive, connected, and needed.  But there is still the question of what to do.  So they set out on their adventure together.  In the end they don’t really solve anything, but they decide they are better off together than apart.

Duck is a bit uneven in parts as Bettauer wrestles with the tone and pace.  Duck wants to be upbeat in some ways but is very dark in others – what might be black humor never quite settles into form.  Each of the encounters are interesting in their own way but the plot lacks an overall arch – the journey is the point not the destination.  Sometimes social commentary seems to poke through but not that often or in a way that undermines the story.

And the story does have its charms.  It is tender and even insightful at times.  Here is an example of something I thought was well done.  Arthur is thinking about his former job as history teacher and his enjoyment of learning and communicating that knowledge to others:

And so, Arthur’s insights into the Korean War and America’s involvement in Vietnam, among others, rested idle in his brain, entries in a mental encyclopedia that only he had cause to consult.  His was a library that no other visited and a wisdom heard only as prattling.  This, the irony of age – when you knew the most, you found the fewest people willing to listen.  As such, Arthur had become what he could no longer teach.  History.

It can get a little sentimental, schmaltzy even, but again not obnoxiously so.

If you, like me, you enjoy quirky stories with animals in staring roles you will enjoy Duck.  It is an easy read and its tenerness, and wry humor, overcome any of its faults.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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