Sunday, July 26, 2009
Four brothers, twin sisters, a father with minor league baseball in his blood, and a Bible thumping mother form the story skeleton of The Brothers K. David James Duncan packs a lot of meat on these bones in his very long, very elaborate, quasi-biographical novel of the Chance family of Camas, Washington.
The first half of the book centers on the baseball career of Hugh “Smoke” Chance, latter known as “Papa Toe” for reasons almost too outlandish to believe. Hugh’s life as a triple-A lefty pitcher stumbles along through interruptions great and small, as his family steadily adds children and his wife rides herd. This part of the book is an engaging account of growing up in small town America in the 1950s and early ‘60s. It has the same steady, powerful flow of the Columbia flowing past Camas.
Then, BAM! The second half of the book takes off. The contentious, argumentative oldest brother, Everett, becomes a campus radical and draft dodger. The scholarly and mystical Peter head off to India where he has a life-changing escapade. Lovable Irwin suffers a tragedy in Vietnam that becomes the focus of the book. One of the twins seems headed for a mental breakdown. Girlfriends and wives come and go. Conflicts between the mom and other family members escalate, but are then explained away in a final revelation so horrifying it almost derails the story. Kincade, the sturdiest brother, narrates the tale, but it is a roller coaster of an adventure.
The disparate pacing of the two halves of the book is its main weakness. It feels like two books. And even though many of the moving parts in the second half relate back to information provided in the first half, the second half is so chock-o-block full of action and ideas and characters that those little connections get lost in the flurry or lose their significance. Duncan may have been trying to demonstrate that the Vietnam war had just that kind of explosive effect on American families, but he could have done the same thing more effectively with about 200 fewer pages.
Duncan’s writing style has matured since his popular first novel, The River Why, but is still evocative, playful, witty, and erudite. The trouble is that there is just too much style involved. For example, he uses puns, limericks, and other word play (the title is a baseball reference – “K” meaning to strike out – as well as a nod to Dostoevsky); he incorporates fictional “primary source” materials such as letters, newspaper articles, and the children’s school essays; and he sets the story aside while characters – all remarkably eloquent and demonstrating eye popping levels of self-awareness – go off on state-of-the-universe soliloquies. A little of such tricks goes a long way. By the end of 650 or so pages, enough is enough.
Despite these flaws, The Brothers K is a beautiful story of family love; well told and worth the read. It just could have been shorter.
J.G. on Hotch Pot Cafe
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