The Brothers K is an epic. It would be impossible to explain all that this book encompasses in just a few words, but among the most prominent subjects are religion, existence, war, family ties and baseball. I don’t even like baseball, but this may truly be the best novel I’ve ever read. The story takes place primarily during the sixties and seventies in Camas, Washington (so close to where I grew up!) and is narrated by Kincaid Chance. He comes from a large and kind of crazy family: Papa is a phenomenal baseball player who has had his dreams (and consequently his finger) crushed by working in a mill; Mama is militantly religious; his brother Everett is a fledgling atheist/political activist/general provocateur, his other brother Peter is a scholarly stoic who reads the works of Indian mystics and dreams of going to India to find true enlightenment, and his third brother Irwin is goofy and innocent with a child-like devotion to a faith that his brothers have turned away from; little sisters Bet and Freddy, although twins, end up about as different as night and day. The novel begins in their early childhood and follows them through dreams crushed and fulfilled, familial schisms and unifications, death, love, and the Vietnam War. Through it all, in spite of their differences and the individual lives they choose for themselves, they are a family that never breaks.
Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is the jumping-off point of this novel and is both quoted and indirectly referenced throughout. The parallels, albeit intentional, are incredible. One chapter begins with a quote from The Brothers Karamazov that reads “It may be different for other people, but we in our green youth have to settle the eternal questions first.” This is essentially the cornerstone of the novel. Like the Karamazov brothers Dmitri, Ivan, and Alyosha, the Chance brothers Everett, Peter and Irwin (who each display eerily similar characteristics and stances to the Karamazov brothers) are all trying to navigate their existence in the world and end up choosing paths that are very different. This is a novel that concerns itself with questions of God, morality and existence, and it doesn’t approach them irreverently. There are so many incredible existential discussions that take place between the brothers; for example, after Everett starts a dinner prayer by saying “Dear God, if you exist…” (a stunt that gets him physically pummeled by his mother) he tells his brothers:
“Anyhow,” he said, “the way I see it, God either made everything there is, Satan included, or He didn’t make anything, because He isn’t there. He either knows everything, or He’s nothing. He’s in charge of all of it, or none of it. So what I was thinking about prayer–especially ours lately–what that when people turn it into begging, when they use it to try to blackmail God into giving them nothing but miracles and and money and new cars and babies and marriages and all that, what they’re really asking His is to remake, or even unmake, what He’s already made. They’re asking Him to eat His words, His inventions, His art, His creation, all of it. If God is God, the only sort of prayer that seems to make any sense to me might go something like this:
“‘Hello there, God. I know Thy Will is being done today, as usual, and I think it’s terrific as usual. Of course to me Your Will looks like a crazy mess that’s getting the rich richer and the poor poorer and the innocent killed and babies stomped and starved and the whole world in danger of being blown up any minute by atom bombs and all. But You know all about me thinking that, since You made me. So, uh, sorry. And please, go right ahead and do Your Will no matter what I think, even if it kills us. Talk to You tomorrow, Lord! Love, Everett.'”
Peter and Irwin were both grinning, but Everett looked dead serious from beginning to end. “That,” he said, “is why, at supper, I was gonna propose to God, if there is one, not that He change His will, not that He remake or unmake the life that He gave Papa, but just that He hand me enough of the rotten part of Papa’s life, and Papa enough of the good part of mine, to get him back out on the ballfield.”
As much as I love the existential discussions, I think my favorite thing about this novel is the dynamics of the Chance family. There are moments where they seem really dysfunctional, for certain: for a time, Mama only acts like a mother to those of her children that attend church with her, and coldly leaves the others to do their own laundry and make their own dinners; after a gross disservice is done to Irwin by one of the clergymen at Mama’s church, Papa threatens to never speak to her again if she continues attending church there, and when she defies him, he follows through with it (for a little while, at least); Everett and Mama have knock-down drag-out arguments where they have to be physically restrained by other family members. But in spite of all of that, there is a depth of love in this family that is unfathomable. They would truly do anything for each other, and they do when one of their own gets into a troublesome situation that he can’t get himself out of. The Chances are a family comprised of strong and stubborn individuals who push each other’s buttons, but when they experience travails that threaten to tear them apart, they always rally together and unify as a family when it matters most. It’s really beautiful.
The Brothers K is incredibly well-written, with vivid characters and compelling plotlines that employ some really beautiful language and imagery, and it’s hilarious, and it’s heartbreaking, and it’s enough to make you consider your existence and God in ways that you probably never consider them. Read this book.