The pet memoir is an unfairly maligned genre, a fact only emphasized by the reactions I received when I said I was really enjoying a book about a man and his parrot. We tend to consider our relationships with animals dismissible fluff (think Marley and Me), despite the fact that those dynamics, and the insights they reveal, are among the more honest humanity has at its disposal. Brian Brett, author of numerous works of non-fiction, fiction, and poetry, emphasizes this truth with Tuco – on the surface, a memoir about his decades-long relationship with an African grey parrot, yet more deeply a discussion of how we treat (and harm) those we deem different from ourselves.
The lively, fascinating, and quirky eponymous animal becomes a surprisingly successful narrative conduit in a book preoccupied with “othering,” an impulse that includes everything from schoolyard bullying to ethnocide. It’s a dangerous, inhumane impulse profoundly understood by the book’s author, who was born with a rare genetic condition called Kallman syndrome. This medical anomaly arises out of a damaged, stunted pituitary gland, the “controller of all hormones,” which prevents the successful start or completion of puberty. In Brett’s case, the condition also “appears to have had an impact on the hypothalamus gland … a gland that effects emotional equilibrium,” denying him the internal stability so many of us take for granted.
Brett also identifies as androgyne, a non-binary sexual identity; he has taken testosterone injections as an adult that have, during periods of his life, altered his aggression levels. Relentlessly bullied as a child because of his appearance, and egregiously told by one irresponsible doctor that “your kind has no history of living past forty,” Brett’s story is one of living fully – even recklessly – despite myriad obstacles. He’s admirably candid as to his feelings about how he was treated by his peers and the medical establishment, unafraid to tread into dark territory.
“When I look back to my childhood, I realize I was a parrot among crows. The weird kid. The different one.” This ongoing exclusion from what was deemed normal, and the suicidal ideation that accompanied it – stepping in front of cars or walking the narrow ledges of tall buildings – seems to be what drew him to become a scholar of the natural world. Brett has an incredible knowledge of how animals interact, communicate, and deal with the unfamiliar. His robust research into numerous species backs up his underlying claim that connection is always possible. “[T]he gap between Others can be bridged, and bridged often,” Brett optimistically writes, referring to both our alienation from each other and our deliberate distance from the natural world.
Brett’s beloved parrot, an obvious Other in a human world, provides an important lesson in adaptability and understanding. The bird’s highly impressive mimicry and often-comical communication skills come to represent acuity despite obvious barriers. Brett’s relationship with the bird also gives him the opportunity to branch out into everything from bees to dinosaurs, linguistic theory, war, and political philosophy. Tuco also contains a study of a variety of birds and their distinct behaviours, often peppered with Brett’s worthy anecdotes of an adventurous life in nature.
There is such a vast range of subject matter that the book occasionally suffers from trying to do too much, straying from the reader’s core interest in Brett’s day-to-day life with his fascinating little bird. Tuco sits on Brett’s shoulder while he writes, skims the Internet or watches TV with him, and tells him it’s time to turn the lights off and go to bed. Though the bird’s ability to mimic the phone ringing or water dripping doesn’t have the same intellectual heft as the material on evolutionary theory, his complex personality (and how beautifully and compassionately Brett renders it on the page) is the memoir’s beating heart. We find ourselves fascinated by Tuco’s odd likes and dislikes, his fears and loves – so much so that when the author takes a detour into scientific facts, we’re eager to get back to the bird’s quips and musings. Tuco is a jester, and we’re charmed throughout.
This odd grey bird ultimately becomes a mystery we need to get to the bottom of, a “little guru of Otherness” that instructs the author – and us – on the ways of the world. Naysayers may not consider the story of a man and his parrot worthy of literary attention, but it is surprising how much insight Tuco provides – not only into how much we fail each other, but also our limitless capacity to find beauty in the world.