This touching, uplifting novel spans decades of loyalty, anger, regret, and love in the lives of the Chance family. Here there is a father whose dreams of glory on a baseball field are shattered by a mill accident, a mother who clings obsessively to a religion as a ward against the darkest hour of her past; and four brothers who come of age during the seismic upheavals of the sixties and who each choose their own way to deal with what the world has become.
The story of Hugh Chance and his family is a rich stew, flavored with humor and pain and love, with a few dashes of baseball and war and religion and science. 'The Brothers K' shows what it is to be human; it spans the spectrum of our existence through the brothers Everett, Peter and Irwin and the different ways they endure the sixties, Vietnam, their roiling, painful, wonderful family, their women, their philosophies, their lives. Writing this makes me want to pick it up again and savor it like a fine pinor noir...
"Joy to the Wordl! The Saviour Resigns!"
It's the story of a family with six children—four brothers and two younger sisters—and their minor league pitcher/millworker father and strongly Adventist mother. Kincaid, the youngest brother narrates through the decades, but the text also includes a school essay, letters, poems, and sections from other siblings' perspectives. They grow up in Camas, WA, near my old stomping grounds, so I especially liked the geographical and other NW references. You get to know and care about the characters, so it's hard to take what life throws at them—I cried several times—but it's hopeful in the end.
Narrated by the observant, quiet and honest Kincaid, number 4 in the family. The 1st third of the book provides snapshots of events, a memorable day spent with dad or a dull (but funny) morning in Sunday school. Engaging if bitty but still an enjoyable build up, providing glimpses of the whole story before slowly coalescing into a magical whole. It truly becomes hard to put down and even harder to stop thinking about.
The characters are all so different, the fervent fundamentalist mother, the ascetic Buddhist brother, the son who goes to war, the son who runs. Yet it never feels that contrived or stereotyped just interesting. This is down to the writing of course, it is beautifully and cleverly written. I could easily double the length of the review talking about the style and the plotting: the way he intercuts POVs or intersperses the commentary with essays/letters. I could spend hours looking for quotes.. still here's just the one to wet your appetite as Kincaid watches his father practice after the operation
"There is a part of me that wants to state flat out that I learned more in the hedge about the defiance of dullness and career death, about the glory hidden in defeat, about the amazing inner capacities of a straightforward no-frills man—even a man stripped of hope—than I've learned anywhere since."
Highly recommended, I cannot think of anyone who would hate it.. well maybe those with short attention spans.
This story was about a family of 8 living in the Pacific NW - not far from where I live. Comfort and security for the mother is found in her Adventist faith. Comfort and security for the father is found in baseball - specifically pitching. This is where the book gets it's title - K is the symbol for "strike out swinging". Optimism in failure - hmmm? Each of the 4 boys had a theme that slowly worked itself out in a beautifully written way.
For Kincade, the story had to do with his mother and their relationship. When you don't understand what drives a certain kind of devotion, it can install a wedge between people and keep them separate - infuriatingly visible, but not reachable. There is a place where Kincade describes a kind of giving up feeling that I really identified with. "I felt at times that she loved me. I also felt, almost constantly, that she disliked me. And I was satisfied to reciprocate. It damaged us. But that's the way it was."
The family struggled to stay close - to find the common ground that they could share together. The person who was best at this was Irwin. He could pass easily, without harming anyone, between the areas of faith and sports. He had a great love of life and everything in it. His ability to love was huge and infectious and very likable. This created a kind of doom around him because anyone who is witnessing a story understands that bad things happen to the kind, happy, innocent guy. Vietnam happened to Irwin and it was pretty bad. The family rallied around him in a rescue mission that was heartening.
Everett, the oldest boy, waged a battle for individual authenticity. He developed a hunger and need for a crowd of people who would feed his image as a wise, witty truth teller. It was mostly bullshit - the stuff of bumper stickers. I see these people in very liberal Portland, OR and having already been acquainted with this smug crowd pleaser, I was happy to see him come to his senses and finally become his real self.
Peter was the second to the oldest and just as obsessed with spirituality as his mother, but not the Adventist kind. This was a deal breaker for them that was almost permanent. As soon as he was able, he left home for school working his brain as hard as he could, seeking enlightenment. His struggle was hard to define, but it was finally put this way, "Some long-lived insidious problems simply slip us off to one side of ourselves. Some gently rob us of just enough energy or faith so that days which once took place on a horizontal plane become an endless series of uphill slogs." I get that. Hard.
I enjoyed this book - I will probably reflect back on images of hope, love, maturation and that terrible sense of unhinged freedom that settles after a screaming family freakout.
Ivan to Alyosha Karamazov
Let's get clear, The Brothers K struck me out.
There are books which tell a story and then there are others, like The Brothers K, whose story resonates deep inside you in response to a call within the remotest nook of your inner being. Either as an iron hand clutching relentlessly at your bowels or as a scorching eruption of pure and unadulterated love, the novel gets into your system, leaving you breathless, exhausted and in a kind of perpetual stunned awe, even afraid of your own thread of thoughts.
I was born in the eighties, nearly the date of the last chapter of this novel, and now I am here watching my past generation's dreams disappear. Because this sublime story has given me implacable proof of certain things that my dormant conscience already was aware of. That, whether we like it or not, we all are a product of our generation. And that my own generation comes out shallow, bland, devoid of values and lacking spiritual commitment in comparison to our past generations.
The States, the sixties and early seventies.
Take the Chance family.
Their lives are defined by Wars.
The Psalm War, campaigned by Laura, the radically devoted religious mother, tortured in silence by her own particular demons. Her enemy: Satan and her irreverent oldest son Everett.
The Baseball War. Baseball, a new religion. Hugh, the ever idolised father, the indisputable source of inspiration. His enemy: his crushed finger and whatever threatening his family unity.
The 'Nam War, which tears apart the Chances forever in unfathomable ways. Its enemy: Non existent.
And of course, The Brothers K War. Four brothers. Four different, almost opposed, ways to understand the world, four voices to fight injustice, to claim what is right, to make us believe.
Wars. Wars. Wars. Either imposed from the outside or inner wars, or both. Wars which threaten to break the ties between each other and bring out the best and the worst in them. But I couldn't help but admire how they planted their singular thoughts, nurtured and watched them grow and stuck to their own formed believes, using them as the only weapons to fight against these ruthless wars:
Everett, a natural leader, bigheaded, bigmouthed and bighearted. An genial anarchist who defies the system and rebels against oppression.
Peter, with his spiritual balance and outstanding intelligence, searches for answers in the Eastern World, finding his Westernized version of himself on the way.
Irwin, the personification of goodness and innocence, still believes in Jesus after the bad joke 'Nam plays on him.
Kincaid, the faithful and devoted narrator, his unconditional love the balm which eases the pain of this wounded family, his unselfishness and perseverance keeping them united, his words oozing with overflowing sensitivity and tenderness.
But what moved me beyond words was the way these strikingly different voices mingled and danced with each other in apparent discordance. The result, an exquisite piece of music similar to Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 131, which at heart I believe to be an optimistic masterpiece despite its distressing fugue and march to death closure. And how in Duncan's novel, I also identify something hopeful, something that feels eternal, immortal, divine...otherworldly in the way he shows us the long, unfolding paths these brothers follow and the way they are ready to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others, giving example of what's the true meaning of courage, honor and ultimately, of love.
I know all these rambling thoughts might sound stereotypical, but believe me, they are not.
This novel has changed my perspective in every possible way, some of its details will always stay with me and either blurred by unshed tears or repressed by fits of laughter, I'm taking memorable souvenirs from this epic journey; although now that I am back home and have time to cherish these new mementos I realize my own generation still has a lot of growing up to do. We can't afford to be drowsy and dispassionate, to commit the same mistakes over and over again, to be carried away on the wave of this void era. Not when some have sacrificed so much in the past.
It's our deed to remember where we come from. And how dear the price of our present was.
Embrace the unknown and let yourself be washed away by the intensity and the unsurpassed beauty of this novel. You'll see how your world spins around and everything shines in a new light, even yourself.
I lost my religion ages ago, but like Everett, I realize that I have never stopped praying and that, perhaps, that's precisely what keeps all my loose pieces together. And for that, I can only be clumsily grateful.
Yet knowing me, my weaknesses, my tedious anger, this tedious darkness, I know I could lose my hold even on you and find some way of flaming out here, and going down, if it weren't for...you.
Not you, Tasha.
I mean this other you. I refuse to resort to Uppercase here. But you hear me. And I feel you. I mean you, the who or whatever you are, being or nonbeing, that somehow comes to us and somehow consoles us. I don't know your name. I don't understand you. I don't know how to address you. I don't like people who think they do. But it's you alone, I begin to feel, who sends me this woman's love and our baby, and this new hope and stupid gratitude.
This sprawling book covers the emergence of a large family in rural Washington, with most of the action occurring in the 60s and 70s. The father is a minor league baseball pitcher, mother a 7th Day Adventist, and the kiddos finding their footing. Some allusions to the other K brothers - Karamazov.
Large sections of this book feel very writerly - long school assignments detailing family history, the obvious Karamazov bits. I was interested enough to finish it, which is worth at least three stars.
OK. For the first two hundred or so pages it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read… and then it gets lost in the jungles of Vietnam. It’s one of those books where I seriously wonder if it is autobiographical, because each character is so distinct, and the story rings so true… but it doesn’t translate into a good novel.
Remember in the movie Bull Durham when Susan Sarandon said “… the only church that truly feeds the soul is the Church of Baseball.” If you love that, you will love the first half of this book. If you want a book like this – I recommend you try The Iowa Baseball Confederacy by W.P. Kinsella.