[Mariner Books; 2022]
If, as I think he has, senior novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux has here set out to write an honest-to-God fratricide (or near-fratricide) novel of genuine literary merit, that would indeed be on two counts a welcomed happening. First, because far fewer on our canonical literary shelves are the stories of murderous brother-to-brother relationships than the Bible would seem to forecast. Yes, given the prominence of the Cain-kills-Abel tale in Genesis and given, too, the quantity of similar narratives in other civilization’s mythologies—think Set and Osiris in Egyptian mythology, think Romulus and Remus in Roman lore—one would expect thousands of fractious male-sibling pairings in humankind’s creative productions. But, no, that’s not the case. Such stories are not much out there. Indeed, when such a tale does occasionally appear, it is frequently no more than backdrop to the tale’s main action. In Antigone, for example, the Eteocles-Polynices rift that results in war and in the deaths of the siblings is but backstory to the titular character’s main-staged efforts to get the uninterred of the two buried. So, too, all that we can imagine having gone wrong in the elder Hamlet-Claudius relationship is but yesterday’s news in the Shakespearean play named after the former’s son and the latter’s nephew. And as for Tom Sawyer’s having to be perennially on the lookout against the snitching of his half-brother Sid in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer—not half so psychologically shaping his problem, most would argue, as the mother- and brother-bereft circumstances of his friend Huckleberry Finn. Yes, on how many days must poor Huck have wished for a brother to siphon off some of his abusive father’s scapegrace attentions?
To be sure, exceptions to this, my generalization, can be discovered on your Penguin Classics shelf—significant among them, the two generations of male siblings that get under one another’s skins in Steinbeck’s East of Eden and, too, the pair who are chalk and cheese in their mother’s eyes in Balzac’s The Two Brothers, and maybe, lastly, the big brother-little brother duo in Stevenson’s The Master of Ballantrae, the pair, that is, who flip a coin to determine on which side of the Jacobite Rising of 1745 each will fight. And, yet still, no, these exceptions notwithstanding, in large measure Irishman James Joyce would seem to have gotten it right when in Ulysses he awarded this memorable sentence to the brother of a sister that was Stephen Dedalus in that and other of his fictions: “A brother is as easily forgotten as an umbrella.”
As for the second of the reasons why welcome would be a fratricide (or near-fratricide) novel coming from Theroux, it’s this: because it would signal the beginnings of his, the author’s, soul’s getting its priorities in order before he—now an octogenarian—moves on to meet his Maker. Is that an excessively pious take on an author whose work has been far more often godless than God-fearing? Is it too funereal? Yes, perhaps it is. And for that reason, I’ll leave it aside for the moment, focusing, instead, on the fiction’s secular features.
To begin, in it, author Theroux submits as his narrator/protagonist Cal, a globetrotting geologist/miner who is maximally bent out of shape by the intrusive behaviors of his elder brother Frank, a North-of-Boston lawyer and a never-left-home townie. Indeed, as Cal tells the story, he most certainly has reasons to be unnerved by his sibling. For Frank is in some regards of the conniving, welching, thankless, and “high-functioning-asshole” sort. Once, for example, when they were grad-school age, Cal saved Frank from his likely drowning. But Frank never said You saved me or Thanks or, indeed, anything much about it until years later, when under the influence of drink, he out of the blue said this untrue thing to his brother: “It wasn’t that big of a deal really. You know, I think I could have made it across by myself.” Then, there was that other time in the bachelor era of the pair’s lives when Cal, having broken things off with a girlfriend who had been good in bed but, in his estimate, too much of a settling-down sort, he found himself getting lectured by big-brother Frank for his use-and-discard behaviors with women, only to learn a day or two later that Frank had allowed himself to be the instrument of his ex’s payback by sleeping with the girl himself. Next, and with ramifications for years to come, Frank persuades Cal to take lead, responsible possession of their mother’s home, even as he also persuades him to allow him to live rent-free in it, and to put his name on the deed along with Cal’s—as a defense, so to speak, against unforeseen calamities that might otherwise deliver the house into extra-familial hands.
And so on, Cal’s discomfiting experience of his brother—until one day, even less to his liking, he gets wind of Frank’s rendering pro bono legal services to his wife Vita and starts wondering what’s up. Are the services rendered without upfront costs because, hey, Frank is that generous, lawyer brother-in-law that every family would wish to have, or because he very much believes in his sister-in-law’s high-minded cause—the rescuing of child workers from the mineral and gem mines of the developing world where, irony of ironies, her husband happens to make a living? Or is it because these services are but a preamble to Frank’s getting again into the bed of one of Cal’s ex’s? For towards divorce—that is where looks to be headed the never-at-home Cal’s marriage to Vita. And there’s another worrisome possibility that Cal needs to be on guard against: his elder, snooping brother’s “winkl[ing] out” of his wife’s legal affairs his, Cal’s, less than honorable comings and goings. To do what with them? Cal never bothers to ask himself that question. For, in the last analysis he doesn’t care. It is enough that his brother is likely apprised of his less than noble features to make him fratricidally angry.
In short, no fun, the having of a brother, says The Bad Angel Brothers in its archetypal implications. Like having Iago as one’s ensign, Steerforth as one’s frat buddy, Cassius as one’s fellow on the emperor’s cabinet, Homais as one’s apothecary, Blanche DuBois as one’s sister-in-law is the having of a brother, says Bad Angel Bs. Also, it makes the case that to be a brother is to be paranoid. For such is the delusional turn that Cal’s head repeatedly takes in this fiction: causing him to see as duplicitous, for example, the son whom his mother thinks first rate, to see as an opportunist the personal-injury attorney whom his village neighbors esteem shrewd and caring, and to see as a wife-stealer the lawyer whom his spouse denominates “a huge asset” (legally speaking). And it gets worse, for the novel says too in its penultimate phase that to have a brother is to eventually have him on the brain, and after that to want to kill him. The first is the lesson taught by those pages in the fiction on which Cal, wheresoever located, hears “humming . . . like a fever” in his “consciousness” his brother’s name. “Frank’s here,” his wife whispers to him in an international phone call on one of those pages. And, damn it, doesn’t Cal, who is in Africa, suddenly think this of the tropical spider at that moment clinging to the back of his neck: “that [the bug] was Frank.” Or, again, on yet another page, when Cal hears in his son’s speech, not his own voice, but his brother’s, the moral of that happening is that brother-on-the-brain is common among brothers.
Then, lastly, as I say, having a brother means trying to kill the guy, says this fiction.
For sure, then, the reputedly “ageless” Theroux has created, in his thirty-third book of fiction, a novel that says much about the brother-to-brother relationship’s darker, human dynamics, as well as about the devil that is in the details of the featured brothers’ lawyering and mining professions. Also helpful is the light it shines on the silly, goody-two-shoed character of humanitarian causes like those that Cal’s wife raises money for and that you and I are these days paying for. (Until, that is, Cal himself encounters the child-labor problem that is his wife’s chief cause, and then her humanitarianism is enlightened.) And, lastly, the fiction is about travel, sex, and love as those things are without religion on this earth experienced, for about them Cal occasionally soliloquizes.
Yet still, make no mistake about it, The Bad Angel Brother’s primary genre category is the decidedly a-secular, Cain and Abel one. I say this because countless are the indications of its author’s awareness of his story’s spiritual, Biblical dimensions—wherein, most importantly, Frank’s probing stands in for a Father/God’s asking one of his sons for answers. And what’s that all about? An octogenarian such as Theroux writing such a book? It’s about the obvious, say I.
Which is undoubtedly a good thing, say I too, however little bent are Theroux’s knees as he writes it. Indeed, we should all write such a book. As well as have a brother (or sister) to provoke us to it.
John Cussen‘s fictions and nonfictions have appeared in a variety of publications. He teaches literature and writing at Pennsylvania Western University–Edinboro.
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