Sunday, July 26, 2009

Review of the Day: The Brothers K

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

(If you would like me to post a link to your review, please leave a comment with the link address and I will add it.)


  1. I remember reading this years ago and having many of the same reactions. I initially picked it up for the baseball aspect of it, but was sucked in by everything else.

  2. I suspect the two disparate halves have a lot to do with Dostoyevsky's K brothers. That's still TBR for me, but I recognize the sons' career choices of military, religion, academia and crime as traditional paths.

    I agree with you that the "split personality" aspect and stylistic flourishes may be overdone, although I think that's intentional (not just bad writing or timid editing). And when the subject is the 60's, how much social explosiveness is too much?

    My review is here, if you want to post it.

  3. Rod -- I put it off for years because I'm not a baseball person. So I finally read it for the "everything else" but found myself sucked in by the baseball part!

    JG -- I clearly have forgotten the Dostoevsky book that I read 25 years ago, because the parallel career tracks blew right past me.

    I had the same problem with Duncan's "flourishes" when I read The River Why. And maybe if I hadn't just read that a couple of months ago, I would have had more patience with Brothers K. But I just couldn't get over the idea that I had to eat a LOT of frosting to get to the cake.

    I'll link your review right now.

  4. An honest but balanced review I thought. He sounds like a writer I might enjoy. I often like frosting, it slows me down and lets me experience more I think. I'll put his books on my to be considered list.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...