DIY MFA Reading List: “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan

David James Duncan’s epic and truly Great American Novel The Brothers K is a heart-warming (and just as often … heart-breaking) work of art. The story is narrated by one Kincaid Chance, who breathes life into each member of his extended, eccentric family with a relaxed, quintessentially American voice that is at once hilarious, sentimental, and insightful. I loved this book.

Hugh “Papa” Chance once had a promising baseball career ahead of him. With a blistering southpaw fast ball, a batting average approaching .400, and a ridiculously low earned run average, Hugh was on the fast track to the big leagues when he was waylaid by military service during the Korean War; then a freak accident rendered his left thumb useless. Suddenly trapped in a marriage crumbling under the weight of six children, a dead-end job at the paper mill in Camas, Washington, and a cold wife clinging stridently to her Seventh Day Adventist faith as a lifeline against her secret past of childhood abuse, Papa Chance simply gives up. He begins to sink slowly into long years of alcoholism and despair.

I resisted the novel at first. The narrative voice was hilarious, but the domestic situations the young Kincaid was describing seemed to deserve more introspection than Duncan was providing. After 80 or so pages of reading, I began to wonder: what’s at stake here? But then Kincaid, sitting alone with his dad in the front seat of their car, gets into a heated argument with Papa Chance, taunting him out of his stupor. Papa punches him, hard, in the jaw … and immediately knows his life needs a drastic intervention. From this point on, I was hooked.

Papa Chance has hit rock bottom, and promptly begins to turn his life around. He builds a makeshift pitcher’s mound in the back yard, covers it with a kind of open-faced shed, and begins throwing again. He runs four miles a night and, after almost dying during that first run, quits smoking. He stops drinking. A local surgeon donates his services to perform a quirky surgical operation, and Papa Chance has his big toe transplanted onto his left thumb. Soon he’s throwing fast balls and erratic, diving sliders and curve balls. All the while, the Chance kids are watching from the bushes behind the shed: Everett (the oldest), Peter, Irwin, and Kincaid.

Papa “Big Toe” Chance eventually makes it to the minor leagues again as a pitching coach and “stupid situation” relief pitcher. Back home in Camas, the Chance brothers continue to duel with their mother’s increasingly strict religious views: some of the brothers (namely Everett, Peter, and Kincaid) are beginning to resist her indoctrination. But Irwin, the big-boned, hymn-singing pacifist, continues to stand by Laura Chance’s side. He attends church on the sabbath, even though it means he has to skip Friday night ball games (Irwin, like his dad, is an unnaturally gifted athlete). The twin Chance girls, Freddie and Bet, are split: Freddie sides with her more free-thinking brothers, while Bet sides with Mama and Irwin.

Duncan explores the dichotomy between religion and reason throughout the book, using baseball, the Vietnam War, and the Chance family’s diverse religious views to investigate the impact that fundamentalism can have upon impressionable minds, and to question the sanity of adhering too strictly to a single worldview. But these dialogues are just that … dialogues, spoken between the family members and their friends or pastors or acquaintances … peppered with clever one-liners to lighten what might otherwise seem like very heavy reading. Duncan is a master at walking the tightrope between levity and depth, and I found myself laughing out loud at some of the extended debates between the family members. And the author isn’t afraid to have his characters change one another’s minds: everyone, at some point in this novel, has a steadfast belief which is eventually transformed … usually because of their love for another person.

For example, Everett (the draft dodger) takes it upon himself to correspond with his brother Irwin in Vietnam. Their letters quickly become a kind of group therapy session for Irwin’s entire unit:

Everett’s side of the exchange, when it hadn’t been ribald or blackly comic, had apparently been preachy and condescending in the beginning. But when a guy named Bobby Calcagno wrote a letter that called Everett’s missives “inartistic,” it hit him where he lived. Or wished he lived. Artistic? he’d thought at first. Strange word in the mouth of a ‘Nam grunt! But Calcagno had gone on to write a letter which even Everett admitted was artistic. He remembers the best part as saying something like: “Most thought we had no choice. We were wrong, of course: we could have been there with you. And you were also wrong: you could have been here with us. But what we have in common is that we’ve all been kicked out of the house. And we don’t like it any better than you do. So let us proceed to please shuttup about which ear we landed on, left or right, and show each other a little courtesy and compassion.”

Everett was so impressed by this that he tossed his next batch of Berkeley Barb and Village Voice clippings in the trash, took a ferry clear to Vancouver, went on a little shopping binge, and mailed his new pen pals the first of several shipments of what he called “kicked-out-of-the-House Warming Presents”: he sent back issues of obscure literary journals, joke books and comics, the best New Yorker cartoons, the quirkiest baseball stories and box scores; he sent peppermint, cinnamon and anise-flavored rolling papers, a book of exploding matches (“my contribution to the War Effort”), a few original poems, some home-tied wet flies that imitated raw rice (“for possible paddy or Delta carp fishing”) and any other heartening things he could squeeze into a manila envelope. The arrival of these enhanced letters apparently became a series of little off-color Christmases for the guys on Irwin’s fire base. A couple of them even went so far as to apologize for having told Everett where to stick it, and admitted to wishing they’d dodged the draft themselves. To this, though, Everett said, “Hey, wait a minute!” And he sat down and penned a litany of the negative attributes of permanent exile in Canada. Which of course only inspired the grunts to fire back letters of the “You think you got problems!” sort. As a result, Everett rounded up a few other draft-dodging contestants, put up a twenty-dollar (Canadian) first prize, and appointed himself, Irwin and Bobby Calcagno the judges of what he called “THE FIRST, LAST & ONLY V.C. VERSUS B.C. HOMESICK TEARJERKER ESSAY-WRITING CONTEST.”

This was also the first book I’ve read in a long, long time that had me close to tears. The Chance brothers and sisters come of age during the Vietnam war. Everett becomes a campus radical, burns his draft card, and flees to Canada. Peter attends Harvard to study philosophy, and eventually treks to India in search of some greater truth. Kincaid stays home to finish high school and watch over his younger sisters. But Irwin, the devout Christian pacifist, is drafted into Vietnam, where the senseless killing of a Vietcong boy drives him over the edge. Brutally attacking one of his fellow soldiers in reprisal for the execution, Irwin is severely beaten and shipped back to a mental institution in California. There he undergoes electroshock therapy while under heavy sedation, and quickly begins to turn into a vegetable.

The passages describing Irwin’s descent into a kind of madness, the physical and emotional trauma he experiences, and his family’s dramatic, last-ditch bid to rescue and rehabilitate him are some of the most moving scenes I’ve ever read in literature. Duncan is playing for keeps with this novel, exploring facets of America’s two greatest past-times – Baseball and Religion – with the precision, grace, and wonder of a philosopher and humorist.

The novel isn’t perfect. There are a few loose plot points, hinted at throughout, which are dramatically resolved in the final pages. And Kincaid, the everpresent but strangely undeveloped narrator, is never fully realized as a character … functioning more like a mirror to reflect the reader’s wonder at unfolding events. And Duncan seems to pack his sentences with “golly”s and “betcha”s and other homespun exclamations, which was at times tiring. But these are minor faults: on the whole, this is an excellent book.

I’ll end with one of my favorite passages, summarizing what I think was the novel’s entire theme in a single paragraph, from a letter Everett writes to his future wife:

… it’s clear to me now that the economy of the psyche, the inner checks and balances, our inner workings are so tricky, so impossibly fragile, we’re so easily crushed, that I can’t believe any longer that it’s me alone, or even me and you alone, or even me and you and luck alone, that’s keeping me alive … I feel now that we could die or be killed or be driven mad by grief or disaster at any moment. Even the strongest of us. Or be killed on the inside without even being touched. Yet my reaction to this, Tasha, has suddenly ceased to be anger and begun to be gratitude. And I don’t even know why.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.