Brotherly Ties That Bind
There are several great novels that feature brothers, but first, let me just mention Elizabeth Strout’s wonderful 2008 novel “Olive Kitteridge,” a Pulitzer Prize-winner in fiction.
This book is really an interconnected series of stories of people in a small New England town; the common thread is Olive Kitteridge, a tough, no-nonsense (putting it mildly here) seventh grade teacher, wife of a pharmacist. You could not imagine a more ordinary person, and you will never forget Olive. “Olive had a way about her that was absolutely without apology,” says another woman. Olive’s son puts it more bluntly. “You can make people feel terrible,” he tells her. This carapace masks a deep, almost painful love for her son, a lifelong devotion to her husband and a deep, if unsentimental, empathy for people. Olive is such an unforgettable character that when she’s a side character, as she is in a couple of stories, you keep longing for her to show back up.
Now, about brothers.
I never had a brother, but I have two sons. As a mom my heartfelt wish has always been that they get along beautifully, love one another and keep their rooms picked up (just had to slip that one in).
Of course, it doesn’t always turn out that way. There are so many strains of connection in a brother relationship; besides love, there can be envy and anger, competition and hurt. All of these are in display in “The Burgess Boys.”
Not surprisingly, a number of great books have picked up on the brother theme.
The first book I want to mention is actually a collection of short stories, “The Stories of John Cheever.” John Cheever was simply one of the best short story writers who ever walked this earth. An alcoholic for most of his life, Cheever, also an exceedingly sharp-eyed student of human nature, nevertheless managed to write more astutely of the human psyche than almost any American writer I can think of.
The beginning story, “Goodbye, My Brother” in this collection is a masterpiece. It tells the story of Pommeroy family; one of those East Coast Wasp-ish clans Cheever was obsessed with. The father died young; now the whole family has retreated to one of those ramshackle coastal “cottages” Wasps always retreat to for rest, recreation and a lot of alcohol.
The family – the unnamed narrator, his alcoholic mother, another highly successful brother and various spouses and kids congregate there. Then the younger brother, the one no one ever got along with, shows up.
And here we go. There’s not a whole lot to do but drink, swim, sail, play backgammon, dance at the country club and drive each other crazy (actually, most of that that doesn’t sound so bad….), and plenty of opportunity for everybody to get on one another’s nerves. This story is noteworthy for what fiction writers call “The Unreliable Narrator” – at first, you sympathize completely with the family, because the youngest brother is undoubtedly a sanctimonious pain in the ass. But as the story proceeds, you begin to wonder whether the brother is not, after all, the victim.
An absolutely wonderful, and much warmer, piece of literature, about brothers is the classic “A River Runs Through It” by the great Montana writer Norman Maclean.
It’s very autobiographical. The narrator is the older brother, who is never named, and his relationship with his younger brother Paul. Paul is one of those renegade geniuses; a brilliant fly fisherman who is very troubled. As Paul’s life spirals out of control, and his brother tries to save him, you begin to feel the immense love the narrator has for his brother. If you can finish this book without weeping, you are in that rare class of readers that never weeps. It also contains some of the most beautiful writing about Montana, and about the natural world, that anyone will ever create.
I would be remiss if I did not mention one of literature’s great classics, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This might be the ultimate tale of brothers in conflict and competition. Dmitry, Vanya and Alyosha are about as different as brothers can be – one is a sensualist, one is a rationalist, and one is a priest. The author uses their various points of view to create a passionate debate about free will, faith, love and despair. Many big brains have admired this book – Sigmund Freud called it “The most magnificent novel ever written.”
I have to confess that this novel can be a little intimidating. You might want to try “The Brothers K,” a 1992 novel by David James Duncan. Set in a small mill town in the Pacific Northwest, it’s the story of the Chance family, from their bumps in the road as their father pursues a minor league baseball career to the turmoil of theVietnam war, as Everett, the oldest brother and a natural politician renounces the war and creates all kinds of personal and familial turmoil. The three brothers in this book all have great gifts, some intellectual, some athletic. The title is a reference to “The Brothers Karamazov” and a baseball abbreviation for a strikeout (don’t ask me to explain this part).