Saturday, February 19, 2022

David James Duncan, "The Brothers K"

I picked up this book because it was recommended to someone I know by a friend of hers, a young intellectual man. Curious about what sort of novels young intellectual men read these days, I looked it up and thought it sounded interesting. I got the audiobook and just finished listening to it. It held my interest all the way to the end, and there are things about it I liked very much. The writing is fine, in places quite wonderful, and the plot is compelling despite some absurdities and a bit too much of the heartwarming.

The Brothers K (1992, 665 pages) is a novel about the Chance family, four brothers and their little twin sisters growing up in the paper mill town of Camas, Washington. Their father is a baseball player, their mother a devout Seventh Day Adventist. The brothers come of age in the 1960s and are tossed about on the decade's storms: student radicalism, eastern spirituality, Vietnam. The New York Times summarized the story like this:

The 19th-century Russian novel has been born again in The Brothers K, David James Duncan's wildly excessive, flamboyantly sentimental, tear-jerking, thigh-slapping homage to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy -- and the game of baseball. 

Yeah, the baseball. This was for me the big problem with the book: at least a hundred pages of baseball, all presented with the dismal earnestness of a man who finds baseball to be the perfect metaphor for life. If you don't have a least a little interest in sports metaphors, you may not be able to handle this book.

Baseball aside, the book is about two things: religion and family. Religious conflict drives much of the plot, as the boys come of age and reject their mother's rigid, churchgoing piety. Duncan grew up Seventh Day Adventist himself, and he gives a convincing and complex picture of church life. Honestly it is the best picture of Christianity I have read in a novel in a very long time. But for Duncan, church is not the best place to look for religion. For him, so far as I can tell, religion is ultimately about throwing yourself into life (e.g., baseball), and devotion to your family. Family is the inescapable reality; good or bad, it is the center of your world.

This kind of novel always feels to me to show only half of life. Sure, family is important, relationships are important. But there is more to life. Duncan understands this, but unfortunately (for me, anyway) his chooses to represent the whole career/intellectual development/personal passion side of life with baseball. 

If you can tolerate a lot of baseball and want to read a long, well-written novel full of interesting people and interesting stories of religion and family, this might be for you, especially if you have a weakness for the bittersweet.

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