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Book Review: Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry, edited by Andrew Blauner

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Getting men to talk about family in an open and honest manner is a rare and special treat and reading Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry is like sitting in a comfortable chair, hidden in a darkened room, listening to guys tell their secrets to each other – when they think we aren’t listening. The book is so chock full of treasure, beauty and truth, that it is almost impossible to know where to begin writing a review.

Editor Andrew Blauner has brought together some amazing literary lions to tell their tales about their brothers and the result is breathtaking, stunning, moving, more than a little heartbreaking, hysterical in places, and often completely overwhelming.

Most of the pieces are essays, many of them original, although some of them have appeared in other places. A couple of the stories are just that, stories, and as such, present perhaps the weakest links in Brothers, but the strongest pieces more than make up for them.

Benjamin and Fred Cheever, who open the book with their essay “Civil War,” do something very unusual: each takes a bit of a turn writing: each contradicting the other, and the result is rather like a grown up fist fight. Sons of the late great John Cheever, you would expect nothing less than erudition and cleverness, and the men deliver. As Fred says, wisely, early on:

    I am sure there are families in which relationships forged among siblings evolve to the point that their parents no longer matter. I have just never met any of those people. For those people, it seems, a lifetime isn’t long enough to stop talking about your parents. And, of course, when we talk about our parents, we talk about love.

Later, Ben adds a quote from the new biography of his father that has just been published: “'…it is too much to ask that people who spend very much time in a world of their own, as all writers do, should immediately and invariably grasp what is going on in this one.’” He could easily be talking as much about his brother and himself as his father. And the two easily conclude that they “don’t have to agree on everything.” Lovely, after all the back and forth.

Several of the men talk about missing brothers. Charles D’Ambrosio’s astonishing essay, “Documents,” details the loss of two of his brothers to madness in an essay that is nearly impossible to read in one sitting. You wonder: how does this man bear the pain and how does he write about it in prose so gorgeous, so tender, so loving? How does he wake each morning and put pen to paper and break through the anger and the fog of sadness such as this:

    My brother Danny wrote his suicide note in my bedroom, and then after a caesura that I know exists because he had to put down the pen in order to pick up the gun, he shot himself: For some reason, I’ve always been concerned about the length of the lapse, whether he reread what he’d written or stared dumbly at his signature, his name the final piece in a puzzling life he was about to end, before he pressed the gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

In “The Accident,” poet Gregory Orr details the horror of the day he shot and killed his younger brother while they were out hunting, something you know is coming from the first page but that you keep reading about the same way you crane your neck back to watch the remnants of a car wreck. In his parents’ casual treatment of the incident, in Orr’s dealing with it both as a young boy and a man, we see how crucially the death shaped him both as a grown up and as a writer.

Herbert Gold’s brilliantly compelling “King of the Cleveland Beatniks” tells the story of Gold’s younger brother Sid, failed writer, failed man, but not failed brother, who wills Herb his novel — fifty years in the making and still incomplete — to his brother at his death. While reading bits and pieces of the book, Herb tells the story of Sid’s strange life and what he thinks it meant, or didn’t, which is also the story of a time long past.

And in “Imagining Robert,” Jay Neugeboren writes about his brother Robert, mentally ill but much loved, and the dangerous and scary life he leads and how Jay struggles to find a place in his life for his brother and a safe place in life in general for Robert. After yet another breakdown, Neugeboren muses:

    Though I could, as ever, talk about what I thought had caused Robert’s condition, long-term and short-term, the more important question, it seemed to me (or was I thinking this way in order to give myself heart, in order to find something good in a situation that was god-awful?), wasn’t what had caused this breakdown, or any of the others, but what, given his life, had enabled him to survive – to retain his generosity, his warmth, his intelligence, his pride, his humor, and his sense of self. This, it seemed to me, was, as ever, the true miracle and mystery.

There is also Steven Roberts’ essay on his twin brother, Dominick Dunne’s reminiscences, originally published in Vanity Fair on John Gregory Dunne’s death, and an hysterical and telling piece by David Sedaris on his youngest brother, the Rooster, which has also appeared in print before, but which both bear re-reading. And an essay by Philip Lopate on his arguably more famous brother Leonard, the radio personality, which contained perhaps my favorite revelatory few sentences:

    My greatest defect is that much of the time I need to regard myself as superior to those around me, and to position myself in such a way that they will feel it too. Regardless of knowing full well that there are many different kinds of intelligence or that we are all ultimately dust and atoms under the aspect of eternity, I persist in wanting to view myself as the most intelligent person in social situations. That lamentable self-regard undoubtedly colors my relationship with my brother, in less than helpful ways. I insist on holding the ‘wisdom’ and ‘maturity’ cards, or on considering myself a half-step ahead of him mentally. But he forgives me, perhaps because he is the wiser and more ample-spirited one.

Also in this wondrous collection are essays by Mikal Gilmore, brother to the infamous Gary, who goes on a journey to find his one remaining sibling, Frank, and in that trip, finds out more about himself than he might ever have thought possible. Gilmore, a writer of uncommon gifts, once again, makes us rethink the very notions of biology, heredity, family and what they all mean. As does David Kaczynski with his searing tale of his brother Ted, the man who terrorized us as the Unabomber, a man who began life as a little boy and a big brother. There are still more stories in this collection, still more secrets and lies collected here, unveiled here, in this very unusual, very revealing, very powerful book.

Brothers is a remarkable compilation. Nothing quite like it comes to mind. Its force is electrifying and lasts well beyond the reading: the writers’ voices resonating long after the book is closed.

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About Lisa Solod