With an average rating of 4.40, it’ll be hard to argue that this book is under-appreciated. But that’s precisely what I intend to do. To bolster my caWith an average rating of 4.40, it’ll be hard to argue that this book is under-appreciated. But that’s precisely what I intend to do. To bolster my case, I’ll be using graphs to display falsely precise measures in an attempt to gain credibility. The real goal (apart from the gimmick) is to highlight the mix of traits this gem of a novel possesses, the combinations of which are rare and enticing. For instance, many books are either strong on plot or strong on character development, but not so many are good at both. In the figure below, note where The Brothers K ends up.
Duncan gives us some of the most memorable characters in recent history. Four brothers are front and center, as you might guess. They have younger twin sisters, too, who play more than just bit parts. Their parents have interesting stories, as well, stemming from Papa’s minor league pitching career and his wife’s repeated chugs of Seventh-Day Adventist Kool-Aid. First born, Everett, is quick-witted, sarcastic, irreverent and outspoken. Much of the book was set in the 60’s and early 70’s, the perfect time for one born to be a campus radical. Peter is the contemplative one with a talent for abstraction. His skill on the ball field is somewhat at odds with his bookish mindset and obsession with Eastern religions. Next in line is the biggest of the brothers, Irwin. He’s slow to understand things, but earnest in his beliefs and genuine with his laughs. His loyalty, kindness and good intent could give Christianity a good name. Kade is the youngest brother, and the narrator for much of the book. Ironically, we learn the least about him. He’s the ordinary one against which the extraordinary traits of his brothers stand in contrast – a sort of benchmark, and an unbiased observer.
A lot happens to drive this epic family saga. I don’t want to give much away, but there are fall-outs, crushing blows, young love, and moral issues to sort through. In those days, Vietnam was a point of contention, too, as some of you might have heard.
Back to my visual aids, you see that I’ve put other books onto the plots, too. They’re meant to provide context. A book doesn’t have to be in the upper right quadrant from me to like it (Angle of Repose and The Martian are prime examples), but it’s a notable accomplishment when one does well in both dimensions. The Art of Fielding may be worth special mention. Not only does it share great characters and baseball as a metaphor, but it was edited by one Michael Pietsch, who is known for having worked with David Foster Wallace on Infinite Jest as well as with the other three-named David of note. In an interview, Duncan mentioned a bond with Wallace, citing a quote by the latter: “Few artists dare to try to talk about ways of working toward redeeming what’s wrong, because they’ll look sentimental and naive to all the weary ironists. Irony’s gone from liberating to enslaving…” This shared bravery in the face of perceived sentimentality shows up in The Brothers K.
The next plot points to another trait the two Davids share: a willingness to tackle weighty issues. Neither wanted pure gravitas, though, recognizing that humor can not only co-exist with it, but also enhance it. The mature and subtle wit in Duncan’s work was a nice complement, I thought, tickling the same temporal lobe.
I’ve only ever read the Classic Comics version of The Brothers Karamazov, but even that pointed to total heaviosity. I can’t speak much to the parallels between the Duncan and Dostoevsky books, aside from the fact that they both featured dissimilar brothers and metaphysical themes. As it is, though, my lack of knowledge about the older work did not lessen my appreciation for the newer one.
In the third plot I’m drawing a distinction between feelings (love, pathos, and matters of organs below the brain) versus more cognitive pursuits. The more abstract our thinking becomes, the further it often strays from the gut and/or heart. I thought this novel did well, as it ventured down certain rather philosophical paths, to keep it relevant to our flesh and blood world. Angels on pins were not nearly as important as the better angels we might enlist to make ourselves tolerable. Duncan was no doubt shaped by a boyhood experience with a religious jerk who told him that his hospitalized older brother died because young David hadn’t prayed sincerely enough to prevent it. In an interview he said, “I think a lot of fundamentalists are wounded people whose hurt makes them want the world to be much simpler than it really is. They want something that is absolutely secure, that never waivers, that does not require hard decisions. When you can cling to a dogmatic system, the gray areas disappear.” This statement might seem a little condescending to some, but certainly less so than the too-bad-you’re-going-to-Hell-for-your-wrong-beliefs” world view that those wounded folks promote. Duncan thankfully takes this unkind and narrow-minded brand of religion to task.
I like to think I’m one of those people who can handle negativity and bad behavior when a writer presents it honestly. But if the brush stroke is too wide, and the dreck is too pervasive, I often think the author is trying to appeal to a bias we may have in equating cynicism with realism. Granted, when it comes to politicians and televangelists, that view is mostly right. : ) But when it comes to my own circle, I’m not seeing it so much. I think this relates to that non-redemptive irony the Davids discussed. Anyway, a well-positioned book in the upper right of the following plot can be refreshing. The Brothers K gets there by way of imperfect, but striving characters who are reminded by the wise ones among them that respect and love by themselves can make for a pretty good religion. As for the rest of the church experience – the rituals, the rules, and the fellowship – it’s not so different from baseball.
I haven’t said anything yet about the writing. It’s a long book, but well-paced; it’s creatively structured, but not to the point of distraction; and it’s semi-literary, but never flouncy. The top-right quadrant in this final plot speaks to its flair and invention in tackling complex issues without being cryptic or obscure.
I could keep going in other dimensions, too (e.g., wisdom, breadth, social conscience), but you get the idea. This book excels in so many good ones. Instead, I’m going to close with a quote that I hope gives more color on the kind of applied philosophy you can expect. It’s from daughter Freddy (Winifred), echoing the words of her father. “He said there are two ways for a hitter to get the pitch he wants. The simplest way is not to want any pitch in particular. But the best way, he said--which sounds almost the same, but is really very different--is to want the very pitch you're gonna get. Including the one you can handle. But also the one that's gonna strike you out looking.” ...more
If you’re one of those technologically hobbled types who doesn’t yet have a time machine, I highly recommend one. I also suggest(Now with an addendum)
If you’re one of those technologically hobbled types who doesn’t yet have a time machine, I highly recommend one. I also suggest spending the extra to get the “place” setting. Then you could do like I did and put yourself in a pub in Dublin in 1904. Last night, after transporting myself in space and time, I sidled up to a loquacious young fellow who seemed, at times, either drunk or crazy, but even as he rambled he was preternaturally well-spoken. He was at his coherent best engaged in dialog, but he was easily sidetracked and would essentially start thinking out loud. I often couldn’t make sense of it, but there was a poetry in the way he spoke, and flashes of color and brilliance to purloin my attention. My plan is to go back tonight. I don’t know if I’ll tire of his verbiage or not; I’m told he can go on at length. Maybe if I invite a friend who knows the culture and language of the times to help interpret, together we’ll figure this blathering new bar mate. I may have found a candidate who can provide that kind of context. Anyone else care to join me in this time trip to Dublin? My machine’s a four-seater. And as we all know, ‘tis the season for Guinness and green.
I don’t know if it was my mood, or what, but when I went back to the pub, I was less intrigued by the rambling young man there holding court. It seemed like he’d been going non-stop. And he was even more digressive and random than before. I also noticed that he never looked my way when he was speaking. Others that he engaged apparently connected well with him. In fact, some were calling him a genius. I sure wanted to appreciate what they were seeing, but that’s not the sort of thing you can force. My finger wavered over the “Abort” button for a good long while before I finally decided to push.
The great thing about the TAP (Time and Place) machine is that I can always go back. Maybe I’ll like it better once I
- learn Latin, - take the on-line Joyce course, and - put myself in a more Zen-like mindset where art simply flows, not just in streams of consciousness, but in friggin' torrents.