Not That Brothers K

Baseball, American angst, familial drama, and Seventh Day Adventist questions of theodicy.

I’m generally uninterested in Christian fiction, which tends to be too mawkish for my sensibilities. Yet I can admit to a few books that have won me over. If you had to choose one title as the best Christian novel of the nineteenth century, chances are you’d land on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, at least if you like alternating between chapters of plot perfection and those containing detailed descriptions of prisons, barricades, and Parisian sewers. Or maybe Russian angst, familial drama, and Orthodox questions of theodicy are your deal instead. Then you’d no doubt raise up Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. All’s fair in this little game. Eye of the beholder, and all that.

But what about the best novel of faith of the twentieth century? Books by Graham Green or Gail Godwin would work. But I’d suggest an unheralded title: David James Duncan’s The Brothers K, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this month. It’s about American angst, familial drama, and Seventh Day Adventist questions of theodicy. Not only that, it’s got baseball and war, along with Irwin, who’s the greatest Christ figure since maybe the Christ figure. Oh, and glorious, clever acrobatics with the English language.

Duncan’s novel, a Bildungsroman about the four Chance brothers (and twin sisters for good measure), takes place primarily in post-war Camas, Washington, across the Columbia from Portland. Everett, Peter, Irwin, and Kade revere their washed-out one-time up-and-coming pitcher dad, who grapples with the end of his former baseball career, the loss of his thumb in an accident at his stultifying job at the paper mill, and how to raise a passel of six kids.

When a experimental surgical remedy for the lost thumb involving transplanting his big toe is a success, Papa Hugh turns a shed in the backyard into a homemade bullpen and hurls pitch after pitch as a round prayers thrown to numb his pain and recover the man he once was. Meanwhile, the boys watch in idolizing awe from a secret spot in the hedges. They believe Papa has regained control of his pitches and can once again throw a strike — hence the title’s “K” (a strike in baseball notation). The brothers are certain the storied glory days have returned.

Baseball as a religion in the Chance family faces stiff competition from Christianity as a religious and moral system. Mama Laura is a fervent Adventist, a true and guileless believer verging on fanatic. If baseball leads to flights of seven-inning fantasy, Mama’s faith is intended as an anchor. She sees to it that her children are present for Sabbath School every Saturday. While baseball is wont to merely break hearts, her legalistic piety fractures the family irreparably.

A central scene involves the “Psalm Wars” around the supper table. Papa’s prayers were more perfunctory,

“speaking so swiftly and monotonally that he sounded more like a bashful auctioneer than a supplicant, he’d mumble GiveusgratefulheartsourFatherandmakeusevermindfuloftheneedsofothersthroughChristourLordAmen. And that was that. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. This, in all its unprepossessing glory, was the indispensable block.”

When Papa abdicates saying the table prayer because he can no longer abide his wife’s religious self-righteousness, the task of saying the blessing rotates among the kids. At first, they imitate Papa’s prayers, but then the exercise “exploded like a barn in a tornado.” Everything breaks down with Everett’s prayer “Dear God, if there is One…” and Mama’s swift rejoinder to “Get behind me, Satan!” This is the start of the family splintering with Shakespearean, tragic inevitability.

We follow the diverging paths of the brothers Chance as the national fracturing of the 1960s tests the brothers’ loyalties, challenges their identities, and sends them reeling. Everett becomes the atheist draft-dodger, Peter the mystic searching for enlightenment in India, and Kincaid the cipher on the sidelines attempting to understand his family. Irwin plays the role of family barometer who lands in Vietnam and returns broken, an Adventist torn by pacifism and patriotism.

Brothers K author David James Duncan knows how to craft full-bodied characters rather than trumped up caricatures. His language rings true throughout. It’s both luminous and grounded. Every time I’ve read the novel, those around me have tired of my inability to keep from reading aloud. At first only available in a foul audio abridgement, the benefit of listening to the now available unabridged version is that it allows you to take in every single word.

Along the way come gut-busting laughs (you’ll remember Sabbath school, Irwin’s atrocious school essay recounting his family’s history, and the twin girls’ scientific investigation of their suddenly dead grandmother) and the tenderest of moments between estranged family members. Just the opening scene of Papa reading the paper on the Sabbath with his youngest son, sprawled securely in his father’s lap and watching both his dad’s cigarette smoke and the neighbor’s burning leaves wafting into the air, is worth the price of admission. Duncan’s art of description rivals Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby:

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.

In the novel’s heart-breaking final moments, we see how the theology of the cross takes precedence over the twin theologies of glory inherent in both baseball and religion. As Martin Luther wrote, these theologies of glory “say ‘Do this,’ and it is never done.” The demands of the law are relentless. But in the cross, where Christ appears in the midst of brokenness and loss, suffering and death, true faith bears all things — literally. If uncommon human kindness gets you weepy and redemption unhinges you, beware the last fifty pages.

Papa’s cancer, a rending force, also brings the Chance family to certainty.

Death is a redundant (and in my opinion, pedestrian) artist, the bare skull and bones its one aesthetic idea — and we all saw its predictable hand at work on our father. But right up till the end, when Papa grew animated by love or family, by baseball or old friends, or even by sorrow, anger, or grief, he remained beautiful to look at. And this beauty (f**k you, death, and fuck your boring artwork) was not just “spiritual.” It was also physical.

When Freddie, one of the twins, has the guts to tell him he shouldn’t smoke, Papa looks at her through the smoke of a smoldering cigarette and says, “Love thine enemies, my girl.”

In The Brothers K, David James Duncan takes you deep into this family’s enduring connections and their jagged rending at the hands of the world and their own stoopid stubborn sinful natures. I gave my wife a copy when it was first published. That cherished first edition sits on our shelves in a place of honor. While I refuse to lend it to anyone for love or money, I’ve given away many copies. Always with the threat, “If you don’t love this book, we can’t be friends.”

Duncan, whose earlier novel The River Why nearly equals Brothers as a pleasurable read, has shifted to writing primarily non-fiction since 1992 and was nominated for a National Book Award for My Story as Told by Water, a collection of essays focusing on his environmentalism. His works are reliably thoughtful, but this novel is his holy grand slam.

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4 responses to “Not That Brothers K”

  1. Janell Downing says:

    With the same seriousness and passion that you give out this book, I too was given this book 11 years ago. And it did unhinge me. And I’ve been gratefully unhinged ever since.

  2. Ken Jones says:

    I like you already!

  3. Cindy Brant says:

    Great article, wow, loved it!
    One of my favorite “salvation” stories is Gran Torino, when Eastwood willingly pl6ans his death to save his neighbor!

  4. […] “Not That Brothers K.” Ken Sundet Jones praises David James Duncan’s brilliant novel on the thirtieth anniversary of its publication: “It’s about American angst, familial drama, and Seventh Day Adventist questions of theodicy. Not only that, it’s got baseball and war, along with Irwin, who’s the greatest Christ figure since maybe the Christ figure. Oh, and glorious, clever acrobatics with the English language.” He’s right; it’s an incredible novel. […]

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