John Williams is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Slate, McSweeney's, The Dallas Morning News, The New York Sun and several other publications. He blogs at A Special Way of Being Afraid. Here John writes about his favorite novel, David James Duncan's The Brothers K.
John Williams on The Brothers K by David James Duncan
I was a freshman in college when my father's closest friend, Charlie, also a friend of mine, sent me a copy of The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Charlie knew my taste a little - I'd told him that I had enjoyed A Prayer for Owen Meany and The World According to Garp as a high school student - so he'd included a note. 'Reviews have compared this favorably to John Irving,' he wrote. 'I'm not sure the reverse is true.'
I was fully immersed from the first paragraph, which establishes Duncan's reassuring, easy-rambling voice and the central theme of family, though it doesn't hint at the book's ensuing humour:
Papa is in his easy chair, reading the Sunday sports page. I am lying across his lap. Later he will rise to his feet and the lap will divide into parts - plaid shirt, brown leather belt, baggy tan trousers - but for now the lap is one thing: a ground, a region, an earth. My head rests on one wide, cushioned arm of the chair, my feet on the other. The rest of me rests on Papa. The newspaper blocks his face from view, but the vast pages vibrate in time to his pulse, and the ballplayer in the photo looks serious. I ask no questions. I stay quiet. I feel his slow, even breathing. I smell his smoke.Published in 1992 and set in the Pacific Northwest of the 1950s and 60s, The Brothers K is the story of the Chance family: Mama (Laura), Papa (Hugh), young twin daughters (Bet and Freddy), and the four brothers of the title, who are bonded to their father - a promising pitcher before his thumb was crushed in a factory accident - by a love of baseball. Like most families, the Chance clan has its dysfunction, the most visible cause of which is Mama's ongoing and futile efforts to impose her Seventh-Day Adventist beliefs on the various boys in the house. But also like most families, friction on the surface is fed by the deep roots of different personalities. Duncan establishes those personalities so vividly, their hope, disappointment, and resilience, that the idea of his authorial presence dissolves as you read the novel.
The family's conflicts lead to dramatic, sometimes wrenching crises, but they also provide an abundance of gentle humour, as when Papa addresses Laura and the kids here:
From now on I keep beer in the refrigerator. It's for nobody but me - Everett, Kade, Irwin, you got that? For Laura's sake I put this condition on me: if I ever drink more than two in a night, I lose my right to keep it here. But otherwise, get used to it. This world can be a pain, and beer can't change that. But it's a slight relief at times. And this teetotally religious crap is getting this family nowhere. Everett, wipe that idiotic smirk off your face. Bet, please stop wiggling.The novel is narrated by Kincaid, the youngest of the boys, though his brothers - Everett, Peter, and Irwin - are the focus, and certain stretches of the book, some of the most rewarding, rely on letters written in their own voices. Oldest brother Everett is the outspoken contrarian of the family, the most aggressive about challenging his mother's religious views, his father's tough love, and - eventually - the Vietnam War and the draft, which sends him fleeing to British Columbia. Peter is a gifted athlete who's more interested in the spiritual side of life and particularly drawn to Eastern religions. Irwin is, to put it simply, a big, good kid, the purest spirit in the family and also the strictest Christian among the children. He's a conscientious objector when the conflict in Vietnam begins, but he's eventually sent off to fight.
That's the thumbnail sketch, but Duncan's not much interested in thumbnails. He shares Irving's (and Dickens's) love of sprawling plot, and the novel runs to more than 650 pages, giving him plenty of room to do what he does best, which is go on at entertaining, conversational length about the subjects dearest to him: family, religion, love, and - largely as a key to the preceding - baseball. That's not to say that The Brothers K is only for baseball fanatics, but it's full of opinions about the game - including how Ted Williams hit .406 partly by conning umpires into believing that he knew the strike zone better than they did - and the sport gently hums throughout the entire book (as in scenes of the brothers practising different pitches while discussing other subjects in the yard). Religion gets equal time, and in many ways is the deeper foundation for the book's clear interest in personal obligations and universal moral conduct. As in his non-fiction, Duncan is drawn to spiritual issues in an undiscriminating way that some might feel veers toward New Age hokum, but which strikes me as an increasingly natural way to approach religion - dubious of the specifics, but open-minded about the broader notions.
The novel opens by citing the last words of the Zen Buddhist D.T. Suzuki: 'Thank you! Thank you!' It's the perfect start for a book that never fetishizes innocence, but does unabashedly treat life as a blessing, however complicated. The Suzuki epigraph is the first of dozens that Duncan employs throughout, and the novel's inclusive spirit is seen in a small sample of other sources: 15th-century Indian poet Kabir, St. John of the Cross, Walker Percy, 1960s radical Abbie Hoffman, Wittgenstein, San Diego Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, and Porky Pig.
And, of course, Dostoevsky. Among other things, The Brothers K inspired me to read the Russian master earlier than I otherwise might have (to the point, I'm 33 now, and just tackling Pride and Prejudice). There are certainly parallels between Duncan's story and that of the Karamazovs, but nothing that makes enjoying the more recent novel dependent on intimate knowledge of the classic.
It wouldn't take an expert Freudian to parse my love of The Brothers K - I'm very close to my siblings and parents, my mother is a devout Christian, my father was an exceptional college baseball player who tried out for the farm system of major-league teams and successfully raised me into a full-fledged baseball geek. On top of that, I was a combative atheist from my early teenage years, but I've come around to a more diplomatic agnosticism and I'm fascinated by the philosophical questions raised by everyone with an opinion, from Dawkins to deacons.
So you'll have to trust that my recommendation of this book is not simply the result of having every last one of my buttons pushed.
Judged on a few technical levels, The Brothers K may not be the best novel I've read, but it's had the longest impact on me. Without resorting to maudlin shortcuts, Duncan conveys the frustrations, consolations, and ultimate joys of human connection in a way that's both open- and broken-hearted, and I've never encountered another writer who renders such a large canvas so intimately.
I've bought at least a dozen copies of it for friends over the years, far more than any other single book. Most everyone I've given it to has at least admired it; some have fallen head over heels. I've had a couple of very smart friends criticize it (gently, because they know how much it means to me and they're nice people) as a bit too soft for their taste, by which they might mean it doesn't pay enough attention to itself as text, or it has too many borderline-corny jokes, or too much sincere emotional investment in Duncan's familiar, somewhat mythical themes. I don't begrudge them the criticism, but I'm glad I don't share it.
Duncan's first novel, The River Why, explored the soul-nourishing qualities of fly fishing, and he's a passionate advocate for the environment. His efforts on that front have kept him busy. Too busy, for my taste. It's been 15 years since The Brothers K appeared, and my long-burning desire for a follow-up is in no danger of abating.