The Brothers K By David James Duncan

Okay. I didn't love this book. I wanted to. I'd heard great things. But I didn't. So sue me!

I know this is going to sound really lame, but here's the first thing: LOTS of baseball. I mean, I'm not one to usually be bothered when the basic subject matter of a book is something I'm not super interested in. But ... so it is this time around. I felt the book was often bogged down in explanation of the family's history with baseball, the history of baseball in general ... and I just didn't want to hear it. I kept telling Kris (bf) he would love it, since I'm sure all the stats would resonate with him. But alas: not with me.

To be more serious, I felt the tempo/writing style of the novel was uneven and not always so pleasing--the main narrator is the younger brother Kincaid, and the majority of the time the POV is first-person limited. The randomly, it would switch to first-person omniscient. Then, there was a random chapter narrated by another brother ... it took me a few pages to figure out the voice was not Kincaid's. Also, there was a weird shift between realism and a pseudo, exaggerated realism (magic realism?) that seemed out of place in this otherwise rolling, family saga type novel.

Lastly, there's of course the very obvious Brothers Karamazov homage ... I did very much enjoy the four sons exemplifying different ideals/belief systems (or lack thereof) in our modern day, but again, this didn't keep me completely riveted ... I kept thinking, I should be reading the Brothers Karamazov instead!

What DID I like, you ask? It was fun to read a novel set in Washington State; I enjoyed that the book was set around the divisive time of the Vietnam War; and I enjoyed that the mother was a seventh day Adventist--what a crazy way to be Christian, ya'll. 0385240031 A very charming novel. The story of the Chance family had me laughing out loud on several occasions, and many of the characters are simply unforgettable. This isn't just a coming of age story centered around a baseball family. Baseball lies at the heart of this novel, but Duncan has a lot to say and The Brothers K is a pointed analysis of American life in the late 60's and early 70's.

It is not a novel without flaws- the Chance boys Psalm war with their mother gets old after a while, and the rescue mission at Mira Loma is a little strange- but these are just a couple of minor complaints within 650 pages of greatness.

Duncan's style is also more complicated than you might expect to encounter in a normal coming of age story. The storytelling almost seems disjointed and messy at times, which only adds to the novels appeal. Reminded me a little bit of Moby Dick in that sense.

It's difficult to pinpoint what exactly makes this novel so great, but I know that every time I sat down to read a few chapters, I had to get up and go give my four month old son a hug. 0385240031 so entirely fantastic… 0385240031 Brothers K by David James Duncan

'In 1961 the best all-around player in baseball became a kind of machine for grinding out long fly balls. As he neared Ruth’s record the man in Maris recognized the Technician of Boink for the inhuman force it was, and began to grapple with it, sensing that his balance — that is his life — was at stake. He began to lose sleep, and to have trouble eating. His hair began to fall out in clumps. Near the end of the season he would break down during post-game interviews, sometimes ranting, sometimes weeping in front of reporters. Like Darwin and Oppenheimer, Maris found after attaining his end that he had little left with which to re-prove his humanity but his confusion and regret. He would say for the rest of his life that he wished he’d never heard of Ruth’s record, let alone broken it. But he did break it — and radically altered our conception of baseball heroics in doing so. Millions of traditionalists never quite forgave him for this. And one such traditionalist may have been Roger Maris himself. That may explain why the Technician of ’61 so soon became the Strikeout King of the mid-Sixties, the introverted beer distributor of the Seventies, and the cancer victim of 1985.'

David James Duncan’s 1992 work of fiction ’Brothers K’ is about the Chance family; mama, papa, the four brothers and the two sisters. The novel takes its title from Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’. Both books feature a patriarch and follow four eclectic sons struggling collectively and individually with the meaning of existence — economically, spiritually and otherwise.

Baseball is the metaphor for Duncan’s book but religion, death and anti-war sentiment all play a large role. The father is a washed up major league pitcher in Camas Washington who gets a second chance at the big leagues when he develops a knuckleball. His eldest son, Everett, has his dad’s baseball acumen but lacks the physical attributes. The next son, Peter, has the physical gifts but is an intellectual and has little interest in baseball as he ages. Irwin is the trusting momma’s boy who eventually finds himself in the jungles of Vietnam. His tragic saga make up the most riveting scenes in the book. The youngest son is the narrator, Kincaid, and someone we don’t know much about. He’s essentially the fly on the wall and the author’s vessel to tell the story.

In the first third of the book there are numerous chapters covering baseball and introduction of the characters but we also get some beautiful writing from Kincaid’s perspective as a small child, like the following scene:

The newspaper shudders, closes, then drops, and there is his face: the sun-browned skin and high cheekbones; the slightly hooked, almost Bedouin nose; the strong jaw still shiny from a late-morning shave, a few missed whiskers at the base of each nostril; the gray eyes — clear, kind, already crowfooted, and always just a little sad around the edges. There he is. Papa. There is my father

As the children age the subject of baseball is no longer that meaningful to anyone other than the father as he tries to salvage his career. Baseball is the metaphor for innocence. Spiritualism, religion, the Vietnam war and the ensuing family dynamics consume the last two-thirds of the book. Although the writing is not always as beautiful in these later chapters, the plot and drama are much more riveting.

This novel was relatable to me and vividly captures a realistic slice of 1960 to 1970’s America. Perhaps for someone who grew up in a small town, with a baseball obsession, in an eclectic family of different religions, I was bound to enjoy it. Although the story is largely about the sons, Duncan’s development of mama and papa and the two daughters were all clearly drawn and added a lot to the realism and poignancy of this book. Duncan’s superb writing cannot be overstated. I was riveted by the ‘riffs’ on Roger Maris, Ted Williams and Vietnam.

This is a tome at six hundred forty three pages. While reading, I was reminded of parallels to David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’ with the sports references and coming of age stories. I later read that the authors were good friends, which I thought was interesting. I will say that Brothers K was an easier and more enjoyable read for me. Probably one for my six star shelf. I'll admit there were a few tears spilled while reading this one.

Five stars. 0385240031 The Brothers K is one of the best books I've ever read. This is the deceptively complex story of an American family. A mother, father, four sons, and two daughters, growing up in the 50s and 60s. Their childhoods shaped by the family's two passions: baseball and religion. Their adulthoods shaped by the family's own small bundle of insecurities and conflicts, and the overwhelming nightmare of Vietnam. I'm a Canadian agnostic who doesn't like baseball, and I loved it. The story is brutally honest and unflinchingly real: sprawling, heartbreaking, touching. David James Duncan isn't afraid to show all the sides of the characters, even the ones that if they were real people they'd try to hide from the world. The characters change and grow as the novel goes on, and the story is both epic and personal, just like the story of any family. The way he uses language is remarkable: at times, he effortly strings together words that create a sentence that would be flawed if even one word was replaced by a synonym. I loved The Brothers K and think it should be more readily available, but since it's not, you owe it to yourself to track it down and read it. It's a rewarding experience. 0385240031

David James Duncan ✓ 2 Review

With his critically acclaimed The River Why, David Duncan surprised the literary world. Now, nearly 10 years later, this astute author is sure to astound readers again with his sharp portrayal of a family of baseball worshipping children and their neurotic small-town reality to give voice and depth to an entire 1960s generation. The Brothers K

It may be different for other people, but we in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first.
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
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.

Now, for those who are still reading and want a real review instead of my incoherent musings, check out Steve's astonishing review. 0385240031 Aside from having fictitious siblings (an extra brother, and where in Ivan’s name did those two twin sisters come from) I must admit I enjoyed reading this book, based on my own family. I recognized themes similar to those that so oppressed my actual brothers and me. The references to baseball were enigmatic, but I decided to treat them as if a game of gorodki were being referred to. This helped.
Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov

I can’t remember the last time I consumed so many pages of the same book in so few days. Simply dropped most other books being read until I finished these Brothers, every place I stopped just left me hanging until I picked it up again.

So, the experience of reading this book was ***** all the way. But now, having finished the read, the memory of that experience has dissipated just a bit. SO - 4 ½. (I do think that the memory of some things experienced grows in wonderment and pleasure, rather than dissipating. But what do I know.)

When I tried to find passages to quote for status updates, it was very hard. Not because there was any deficient supply of moving or funny passages, but because they all seemed to be connected in so many different ways, to what had gone before in the story, that, without that context, that which made them stand out wouldn't have been apparent.

In another review I recently wrote, I expressed my frustration at figuring out how to review fiction, and particularly how I disliked trying to compose a useful synopsis of a book’s narrative. I’m not even going to bother with that task here.

Let’s instead take a look at part of the introductory statement about The Brothers Karamazov in Wiki:

… a passionate philosophical novel … that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality, a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, judgment, and reason …
Well damn, that’s pretty close to The Brothers K, except I suppose for the “passionate philosophical” bit. And for sure, it’s a lot more fun than I would suppose Dostoevsky’s novel is (I’ve never read it).

Two men playing gorodki, Moscow, USSR, 1935

So, Duncan’s book (in which he actually refers to Dostoevsky’s in a few places) has a mother who is an increasingly rabid Christian, and a dad who’s a good deal more uncertain about religion. Of the six children (four boys, two younger twin girls), four have varying measures of unbelief. The kids begin to phase into adulthood at the time of the Vietnam War. Mix in other relatives, some dark stories in the background. It’s no wonder that when the book came out in 1992 it was both popular and quite highly regarded by critics.

The book reminded me repeatedly of We Were the Mulvaneys. (And to a lesser extent, thinking about it after I was finished, of East of Eden.) Oates’ book is darker. Both novels feature a father of the family that is probably the main character, with a mother very close behind. Great male and female leading roles for a movie. But while Oates writes of a man consumed by a tragic event, Duncan’s lead figure is more likeable, one who is involved in an industrial accident which destroys his chances at a professional baseball career, but who mostly faces his lower middle class future with fortitude, a good family man, good father who later lives through better times until the Vietnam war in the late 60s knocks him down again (through its effect on his family).

Here's a couple reviews by friends which are far more eloquent than this one.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Previous review: The House of Writers post-post-modern
Random review: Planet of Slums not an uplifting read, but …
Next review: Plato's Dialogues a reading sequence?

Previous library review: The World As I Found It
Next library review: Invisible Man Ralph Ellison 0385240031 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 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.”
0385240031 Okay. I have spent a lot of time trying to formulate a persuasive review for this book.

I could tell you this: that everyone I've ever recommended it to who has read it has really, really loved it. Many of them have bought extra copies for people they want to recommend it to. Many of them have given this book to their parents, their brothers, and their best friends.

I could tell you this: that it is each of my parents' favorite novel as well, and that one of my most deeply imprinted memories of them as a couple is of them reading this book aloud to each other and often laughing loudly or weeping. At the time, I was overwhelmed and almost scared of the emotion that this book seemed to bring to the surface. After I read it, I understood all of those emotions inside and out and they didn't scare me anymore. They just made me feel more alive.

I could say that it is my choice for the 'Great American Novel.' I could point out that if you scroll through the reviews for this book on goodreads, they are overwhelmingly four or five stars and often use words like 'favorite', 'best', and 'perfect.' I could tell you that my cat is named after a character in this book. I could talk about how I love it when books are ostensibly 'about' something you have little to no interest in whatsoever but you love the book so much anyway, and you love the thing too, because the characters do. In this case it's baseball. I used to recommend this book even more to people I knew loved baseball, but on my recent third re-reading of it I have to say I don't think it matters. You will love (love love love love love) baseball while you are reading this book, whether you did before or will after.

I don't really know how else to tell you that this book is a book that you should read, that I implore you to read it because I think it will make you happy and enlarge your heart and that you will treasure the time you get to spend with it. Just read it, okay? 0385240031 This was a very good book - worthy of the highest rating and all the acclaim it has garnered. Though basically the story of a family's struggle to cope with changing times during the turbulent 60s, I don't recall ever reading a work of fiction that better explores the consequences of religious extremism on family life. That's serious subject matter, but the book is actually very funny with several laugh-out-loud moments.

The novel features a mother who is a strict Seventh Day Adventist and fanatically devoted to her church. This leads to problems with her husband who worships at the church of baseball - which he compares to regular church by stating Hell, they even have the same stinking organ music.

Together they have six children, but the Waltons, they are not. Thanks partly to the influence of an atheist grandmother, three of the older boys begin to lose their faith. One of them makes reference to his fellow church-goers as P.O.W.s - prisoners of worship. When the eldest begins his dinner table prayer with Dear God, if there is one... the mother has a violent reaction and a family war ensues. The rift continues to grow and has dire consequences when the Vietnam War rears its ugly head.

The book had way too much baseball for me to ever call it a favorite and there were certain characters I just didn't care about. But as the daughter of an atheist and a Fundamentalist Christian, I found it a very even-handed look at religious strife, compromise and ultimately forgiveness. A family does not have to pray together to stay together. 0385240031