January 8, 2009
I don’t normally do book reviews on this blog, but I figured all you aunts, uncles, great-uncles, parents, and grandparents are probably getting tired of this endless barrage of cute kid pictures and adorable kid anecdotes. And, besides, if Kelly over at The Family with Three Last Names can read 70 books in a year and write reviews for most of them, I figure the least I can do is share the occasional book that particularly strikes my fancy.
Recently, I finished reading The Brothers K, by David James Duncan. The title is a play on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (which I haven’t read, and don’t feel particularly compelled to — it might’ve been the result of buying the cheap translation, but I labored through Crime and Punishment several years ago and doubt I will feel the urge to give Dostoevsky another go for a while). The “K” in the title is a reference to baseball — a subtle reference to anyone who doesn’t follow baseball enough to know that a “K” is a strikeout. But, there is a continuous baseball thread running throughout the book.
The book follows the lives of a family of eight living in Washington State from the early 1960s through the early 1970s. The narrator, Kincaid, is the youngest of four brothers who were all born roughly a year apart and all have unique personalities. There are twin sisters that are several years younger who are, as the title implies, secondary characters in the story. The mother is a devout Adventist who has some darkness in her past, while the father is an irreligious former baseball phenom facing a life of drudgery as a mill worker after fate deals him a series of unpleasant hands, culminating with him getting the thumb on his pitching hand horribly smashed in an accident at the mill. The story flashes back to the courtship of the parents (told through a multi-part freshman essay written by one of the other brothers), and, in the end, flashes forward into the late 70s and early 80s, but the core of the story happens over a one-decade period. The primary narrator is Kincaid, but the other three brothers all “write” parts of the story, either through letters that Kincaid includes, through papers written for school, or through journal entries. Duncan does a great job of shifting the tone/style of the story for these interludes in a way that backs up the personalities described by the main narrator.
Set against the backdrop of Vietnam, the book explores family dynamics and the changes that brothers go through as their unique personalities manifested in childhood meander, diverge, and later converge as they grow older. The voice and the storytelling made me think John Irving (with the characters and their quirks toned down to be unique-rather-than-absolutely-nuts) meets Jonathan Franzen, which made for a thoroughly enjoyable read!