Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 20, 2018

The Brothers K, by David James Duncan #BookReview

Why did I read this strange book from 1992 that is a lot about baseball? Because I couldn’t fit my latest book by an author whose surname begins with a D onto the TBR shelf, and removing this one made room for the new one.  I didn’t understand a word about the baseball, and before long started skipping huge chunks of a metaphor that seems overdone to me, but I rather liked the picture that emerged of an underprivileged American life that seems rich and fulfilling all the same.

Feminists beware: this story is about a family of six children, but the two girls are definitely an afterthought, perhaps because they don’t play baseball.  (Or do they?) Well, fair enough, the book is called The Brothers K, so we can’t say we weren’t warned…

The title is a clear allusion to Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov which I read a million years ago when I was far too young to make anything of it.  I needed Wikipedia to remind me about its plot:

Composed of 12 “books”, the novel tells the story of the novice Alyosha Karamazov, the non-believer Ivan Karamazov and the soldier Dmitri Karamazov. The first books introduce the Karamazovs. The main plot is the death of their father Fyodor, while other parts are philosophical and religious arguments by Father Zosima to Alyosha.

and its themes:

The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th-century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, judgment, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia, with a plot which revolves around the subject of patricide.

Well, The Brothers K is a modern American version with four brothers instead of three, (plus two largely irrelevant sisters as noted before) and the patricide is more a case of a father’s spirit being killed by the way his ambition and talent as a baseball player is compromised by his circumstances.  His life is one of drudgery as one of the working poor, made more unbearable by his wife who is a fanatical Seventh Day Adventist.

This fanaticism is the source of a split within the family, and the Vietnam War is the catalyst for its tragedy.  Three of the brothers reject Adventism, but Irwin remains devout into adulthood.  There is irony, then, in that of them all, he is the only one who gets drafted, because apparently (who knew??) Adventists were automatically granted the status of Conscientious Objectors and were exempted from the draft.  Brothers Peter and Kade win university scholarships to achieve endless deferrals, and Everett flits over the border to Canada, but the fanatical Elders at the church take out their resentment of the unbelieving brothers by rejecting poor dopey Irwin as one of their own, partly also because he has taken a vulnerable young woman under his wing and (you guessed it) got her pregnant.  So expelled from his religious community, off Irwin goes to be a grunt in Uncle Sam’s army, where it turns out that, well, yes, he really is a conscientious objector and that causes enormous trouble with long-lasting effects.

Once I sifted out all the stuff about baseball (and there really is far too much of it) it’s a satisfying novel.  Those of us of a certain age who lived through the Vietnam Years will connect with the family conflicts, though in the novel it’s not really about the morality of the war per se, but rather about conscription.  Everett, who is the most radical of the brothers, is portrayed as a man more in love with his own profile as a radical than as one with genuine objections to the war, and I bristled a bit at that because I admire the generation of Australian radicals who led the Moratorium movement here and stopped the war – in a way that successive generations have not bothered to do over Iraq or anywhere else.

But the portrayal of the impact on family is perceptive.  Everett chooses radicalism while Peter chooses a monastic pursuit of other religions, and Kade the narrator feels a sense of loss:

… it wasn’t the choice between rebellion and renunciation that generated that comfortlessness: it was an unnameable sadness that filled both halves – a loss of unity, of solidarity, or brotherhood. Something precious was being taken from us, or squandered by us.  And neither Everett the Revolutionary nor Peter the Monk was taking even a moment to look back and mourn for it. But to me…

To me it felt as though two old and intimate friends, after sixteen years spent hiking shoulder to shoulder, had come to a fork in the trail, and without even noticing had taken different paths. When they first looked up and saw what had happened, they were not at all far apart: they could still speak quietly to each other, could still see each other perfectly well.  But they just kept going!  All those years spent side by side, yet they didn’t hesitate, didn’t wave goodbye, didn’t even acknowledge that they’d parted. Somehow this chilled me to the heart.  (p. 207)

The representation of religious fanaticism is also excellent, and with a little tweaking, still highly relevant to the current menace of fundamentalism of other varieties as well:

In a head-on collision with Fanatics, the real problem is always the same: how can we possibly behave decently toward people so arrogantly ignorant that they believe, first, that they possess Christ’s power to bestow salvation, second, that forcing us to memorise and regurgitate a few of their favourite Bible phrases and attend their church is that salvation, and third, that any discomfort, frustration, anger or disagreement we express in the face of their moronic barrages is due not to their astounding effrontery but to our sinfulness?  (p.227)

Indeed.

The Brothers K is 640+ pages long (less if you skip the baseball) but there is much more to it than I have outlined here and I’m not sorry I bought it now…

Author: David James Duncan
Title: The Brothers K
Publisher: Bantam Books 1996, first published 1992
ISBN: 9780553378498
Source: personal library.  No, I can’t remember what prompted me to buy it.


Responses

  1. Interesting review. Being American, I do understand baseball, but I’m not really much of a sports fan and don’t think I could get into a book about it. Although I did read “The Natural” by Malamud.

    I always wonder what ax to grind people have when they make such a huge deal about a particular religious belief. Did the author grow up in the SDA church and is bitter about it? Did he see a lot of legalism and hypocrisy there that profoundly affected him? Is he trying to justify his rejection of it?

    I honestly don’t know much about the SDA church, but I have had experience with judgmental, legalistic people, both religious and non. They can certainly make life unpleasant.

    I think I would like to read the book, based on your review, to dig a little deeper into that aspect, rather than the baseball. Thank you for that! :)

    • Hi Sharon, thanks for your comment. I’m afraid I haven’t delved into his background, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some exposure to heavy-duty religion somewhere in his life. Without going into spoilers, yes, there was hypocrisy and legalism in the story, though not just from the church but also from the army. However, I would say that the novel is more interested in exploring free will, and also the philosophical implications of an ethical framework that transcends any specific religious belief.
      Speaking for myself as a non-believer whose friends include some very religious people, I’m quite happy to live and let live, as long as they have as much polite respect for my beliefs as I have for theirs. I’ve never felt the need to justify my rejection of faith, because it’s just not an issue in the circles I move in and Australia is a secular society anyway. Although there are clusters of religious belief in some suburbs, deeply religious people here are the exception, not the norm, though many are nominally some religion or other for the purposes of births, deaths and marriages.
      But perhaps if I lived in a very religious community it might be different. I know a teacher-friend who got off on the wrong foot entirely when – on teacher-exchange in some small place in the Bible Belt of America – he didn’t go to church on Sunday and #FatalMistake subsequently explained that he didn’t believe in God. As far as they were concerned he was a sinner, and not fit to teach their children…

  2. I remember that one of the internet bookgroups I was in read this and it was very well regarded. I didn’t read it because they’d do a book a fortnight, and at the time that, with my own reading group and my job and my school-age children, I decided it was just too big to take on.

    As for the Moratorium, I can’t help thinking that conscription may have had something to do with the strength of the activism here and why, perhaps, the activism hasn’t been as active for those later wars?

    • Yes, it is long, and IMO longer than it needed to be. There was a time when every second book that we heard about from the US books was a chunkster and I suspect that this was part of that. But then, I don’t understand baseball. Maybe it really did have something to contribute to the novel, and I just didn’t ‘get’ it…
      I don’t know about the reasons for activism: I remember reading that 90% of Australians were against the war in Iraq, but there was little or no effective opposition to it, and they voted Howard back in again at the next election.

      • You’re right, there was. I’d forgotten that.

        As for activism, I don’t know either – I was just wondering. Another issue is that Iraq is so much further away than Vietnam too, which could make it all a little more theoretical. There’s a PhD in this I reckon!!

  3. I actually like baseball and don’t mind reading about it (Harbach’s brilliant The Art of Fielding and Liz Moore’s Heft come to mind), and some might say baseball is a religion… but not sure I want 640 pages of it.

  4. I loved The Brothers K – but then, I’m an American and I do like baseball. I also saw the deep connection to Dostoevsky in the brothers and the themes –
    Alas, it’s been a long time since I read it – don’t remember much in the way of specifics.

    • It’s made me want to re-read the Dostoyevsky. It’s annoying me that I don’t remember it properly…

  5. The good thing about 640pp is that you might have able to fit 2 new Ds into your TBR. I agree with Sue about the success of the Vietnam anti-war movement, it had huge middle class support from parents opposed to conscription. People might be opposed to but largely seem not to care about a whole range of right-wing projects, including the ‘coalition of the willing’. (Sorry for the delayed response, I now have a TBR of blog posts I skipped while driving)

    • I don’t know how you do it, Bill, I’m still catching up on posts and I was only offline for the weekend!
      Alas, the D that replaced this D was a chunkster of equal size. I think I will need to deal with Don DeLillo’s Underworld to have any real impact… that’s 827 pages, but I’ve started it twice and not got anywhere with it. I should either read it or dispose of it, but it was my father’s so, you know, I feel reluctance to do that.


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