Once in a great while a writer comes along who can truly capture the drama and passion of the life of a family. David James Duncan, author of the novel The River Why and the collection River Teeth, is just such a writer. And in The Brothers K he tells a story both striking and in its originality and poignant in its universality.
This touching, uplifting novel spans decades of loyalty, anger, regret, and love in the lives of the Chance family. A father whose dreams of glory on a baseball field are shattered by a mill accident. A mother who clings obsessively to religion as a ward against the darkest hour of her past. Four brothers who come of age during the seismic upheavals of the sixties and who each choose their own way to deal with what the world has become. By turns uproariously funny and deeply moving, and beautifully written throughout, The Brothers K is one of the finest chronicles of our lives in many years.
Praise for The Brothers K
“The pages of The Brothers K sparkle.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Duncan is a wonderfully engaging writer.”—Los Angeles Times
“This ambitious book succeeds on almost every level and every page.”—USA Today
“Duncan’s prose is a blend of lyrical rhapsody, sassy hyperbole and all-American vernacular.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“The Brothers K affords the . . . deep pleasures of novels that exhaustively create, and alter, complex worlds. . . . One always senses an enthusiastic and abundantly talented and versatile writer at work.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Duncan . . . tells the larger story of an entire popular culture struggling to redefine itself—something he does with the comic excitement and depth of feeling one expects from Tom Robbins.”—Chicago Tribune
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||3 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Thank you! Thank you!
—last words of D. T. Suzuki
Papa is in his easy chair, reading the Sunday sports page. I am lying across his lap. Later he will rise to his feet and the lap will divide into parts—plaid shirt, brown leather belt, baggy tan trousers—but for now the lap is one thing: a ground, a region, an earth. My head rests on one wide, cushioned arm of the chair, my feet on the other. The rest of me rests on Papa. The newspaper blocks his face from view, but the vast pages vibrate in time to his pulse, and the ballplayer in the photo looks serious. I ask no questions. I stay quiet. I feel his slow, even breathing. I smell his smoke.
On the opposite chair arm, beside my argyle shins, is a small ashtray—an upholstered sandbag with five brass grooves arching over a green glass dish. Papa’s cigarette smolders in the center groove. It has no filter. It’s called a Lucky Strike. Past its slow blue smoke is the diningroom window. Past the window, yellowing maples and a low gray sky. Past the maples and under the sky, a neighbor man with a pitchfork, burning an immense pile of black limbs and old brown leaves.
Papa’s hand appears. It hangs above the ashtray. It is blue-veined, black-haired, brown-skinned, scarred and powerful. It takes up the cigarette and disappears behind the paper. The neighbor man throws an enormous forkful of leaves onto the burn pile, smothering the flames. Papa takes a deep breath. The hand returns the cigarette to the same brass groove, a quarter-inch orange coal on the end of it now, the smoke rising up much faster than before. A dense cloud of white billows up through the smoldering leaves. Papa breathes out. The leaves ignite. Even through the window I hear them bursting into flame. Papa turns a page, the paper makes the same crackling, burning sound, and I glimpse his eyes before the paper reopens: they are serious, like the ballplayer’s.
Idly Papa’s long fingers twist the ashtray in a circle. Slowly the man with the pitchfork circles his burning brush. The hand picks up the cigarette. The man forks more leaves onto the fire. The hand returns the cigarette, folds it against the green glass, crushes the hot coal with the tip of a bare finger. The man stares for a moment into the fire, then sticks his fork in the ground and walks away.
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.
The screen door slams. I lurch, open my eyes—newspaper falls from my body. I am lying alone in my father’s chair. He has vanished right out from under me, leaving a blanket of sports page when he left. I look outside: the sky is still low and gray, yellow leaves still waving, but the burn pile is ashes and the man and pitchfork are gone. I look at the chair arm: the ashtray is still there, but the green glass is clean, the ashes and Lucky butt gone.
I can tell by the heaviness of step that it’s my brother Irwin back in the kitchen. When I hear the icebox open, I know that neither Mama nor Papa is in the house. I hear him gulping milk straight out of the bottle. Germs … I hear the careful folding and refolding of wax paper round a plate of leftovers. Thou shalt not steal … I hear a shout somewhere outside, and Irwin darts into the diningroom, his mouth stuffed full of something, his eyes bulging, then, seeing no one, relieved.
“Where’s Papa?” I ask.
He jumps, bolts the food, chokes a little, laughs. “Where are you?”
I sit up in the chair.
He laughs again, starts back toward the kitchen, then calls back to me, “Battle Ground. Playin’ ball.”
The screen door slams.
I am alone on the floor of mine and Irwin’s room now, picturing Battle Ground. I’ve been there, Mama says. It’s got the big park with the pool where I waded with my boats when it was too hot to be in the bleachers, she says. I can’t remember the bleachers, I can’t remember the ballfield, but I remember the pool. And now I think I remember the tall men with caps and gloves running over the grass, splashing in and out of the water, throwing and hitting baseballs and singing Aaaaaa! Aaaaaa! and Hum Babe! and Hey, Batter! My oldest brother, Everett, showed me how they sing. He said that Hum Babes are special, because Papa is the pitcher and it’s his pitches that hum. I said, They call Papa a babe? No, Everett said, they just sing Hum Babe to the pitches, but some players call him Smoke because of his Lucky Strikes and fastball, and some call him Hook because of his curveballs and nose. I said I thought they were just plain baseballs. He said they were, but that curveballs and fastballs are kinds of pitches, and pitches are special throws nobody but the pitcher knows how to make, and Papa has seven different kinds, not counting his different deliveries. He didn’t say what a delivery was, but he said Papa had a kind that went ffffffffwirp! called a sinker, and a kind that went ffffffffweet! called a slider and a kind that went ffffffffwow! called a forkball and a kind that went bleeeeeeeeeeurp! called a change-up and a secret kind too, called a knuckler, which he only used when he was red-hot since it might go rrow!rrow!rrow! or might do nothing at all, and I felt almost like crying by then, I was so confused and wanted so much not to be. Everett noticed, and shoved me in a gruff, friendly sort of way. Don’t worry, he said. Next summer I’d be old enough to go watch him pitch, and soon as I watched him I’d understand everything fine …
But I don’t want to understand next summer. I want to understand now. So I have the sports page here beside me on the floor, open to the ballplayer with the serious face. And this is not an orange crayon in my mouth. It’s a Lucky Strike. “Fffffffweeet!” I tell it. This isn’t the lid of a mayonnaise jar in my hand, either. It’s an ashtray. “Bleeeeeeeeeeurp!” And Bobby, my bear, is the neighbor man and this salad fork is his pitchfork and these piled blankets are the pile of burning brush. Because I am not me. I am Smoke! I am my father! and the harder I suck the Lucky the hotter burns the brush! Aaaaaaaaaaa! the fire hums, babe, the flames ffffffffwirp and ffffffffwow! And when I spin my ashtray the neighbor man is helpless: I spin, spin, spin it, he whirls round and round and round. Then I throw, I forkball, I pitchfork my Lucky clear up to the sky and rrow!rrow!rrow! flaming leaves and limbs and papers knuckle every which way and the trees and batters and people and houses burn! burn! burn!
I saw what Papa was doing.
And next year I’ll go with my brother to watch all the ballplayers splash and throw and sing.