Brother John mailed me a thick paperback. The gift represents the period ending one sentence and a capital letter beginning the next.
Every time I mentioned baseball, he would ask, “But have you read The Brothers K?” David James Duncan’s novel, the way John described it, traveled like an effective slider loosed from a hurler’s right hand. The book initially resembles a baseball story, then breaks the plane of possibility, becoming something else entirely.
Like a few minutes of rain touching the floor of drought, my friend’s queries spurred a little life, a little interest. Then I forgot myself, busy with something else, and the earth dried out again. Eventually, in an act of kindness, John took the matter into his own hands and pressed Duncan’s book into mine.
Opening the book to mark this year’s Spring Training, I wandered into the crisp climes of Camas, Washington, and spent 645 pages in the company of the Chances.
My eyes traced the loops of Duncan’s sentences—wise, meditative, and cheeky, often at once—and I fell fast in love with his writing, and with the family, he forms in words. The strange yet absolutely likely romance between a journeyman pitcher and his Adventist wife bears six children, the four brothers of the title and two younger sisters.
Upon reading Duncan’s final four words (“He feels his pulse”), I sensed myself missing the world of the Chances as much as the family itself.
The Brothers K follows the Chances for a couple of decades, pursuing some semblance of a plot. Especially in its final third, as the family rewrites tenuous treaties for the sake of brother Irwin. But Duncan’s novel is made of moments. Moments that become rhythms, rhythms revealing personalities.
Upon reading Duncan’s final four words (“He feels his pulse”), I sensed myself missing the world of the Chances as much as the family itself. I lived among them for 645 pages. For better or worse, I lived as one of them.
My face flushed in the “Psalm Wars” chapter—one of the virtuoso passages in modern fiction—as older brother Everett and his mother lob Scriptures at one another like old movie couples throw dishes. He invents secular verses while she delivers the words of David with no emotion but rage; neither rests on holy ground.
I watch a Yankees broadcast with the book’s narrator, brother Kincaid, and feel the gooseflesh thrill of anticipating the next play. Later I soak in the same cold sweat as Papa Chance, hurling junk at a makeshift strike zone, throwing for his life. And I mouth along as pagan Everett prays, an entreaty as real as any invoked in the temple of the Lord proper:
I refuse to resort to Uppercase here. But you hear me. And I feel you. I mean you, the who or whatever you are, being or nonbeing, that somehow comes to us and somehow consoles us. ... O thing that consoles. How clumsily I thank you.
Each of us subscribes to a certain brand of escapism. The Chances remind me how much mine resembles real life. For 645 pages, their shame, lust, worship, and virtue become my own. I think like they speak. I stumble for a while stepping out of their world.
I’ve always been like this. In grade school, I nearly always finished my assignments early. I dreamed up ballplayers, killing time by calculating stats for the backs of their baseball cards. Working out the little I knew about history, I sketched biographies for fake presidents—unaware how the similarities of their ascents betrayed the WASPy sameness of American government.
Today, no one dares vacation with me. Some plot the shortest, straightest lines between tourist traps. Others long to travel far from the civilized grid. All I want is to lose myself in someone else’s city.
I daydream about shuffling my feet along strange pavement, resetting my compass with another set of cardinal directions, letting somewhere else’s sun draw me new shadows. I wonder what coffee tastes like made with local tap water. I want to look into the eyes of strangers who, if the world were a few degrees different, might be friends.
My wife and I visited New York City for all of 36 hours once, and here’s what I really remember: walking tree-lined streets, sensing the city’s buildings bend toward me. The neighborhood Italian joint where I drank too much wine and tasted the glories of fresh tomato and a few simple spices.
Touring the United Nations building barely registers. So does skimming saltwater to glimpse Lady Liberty. My memories rest on simply being a person in a place.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is the most imaginative thing you can do, I remind myself.
My tendencies might steal or multiply grace. At worst, they offer escape from one truth into another; trying on somebody else’s life to forget my own. At my holiest, my most in tune with God and others, they access empathy.
Some people grow softer, more compassionate by entering a world unlike their own—the portals arrive in science fiction and treks along the Appalachian Trail. Maybe I’m too thick-skulled. I require realism and holing up in strange coffeeshops.
Because if I sit in the coffeeshop long enough, I imagine loving the other people there. And if my imagination sparks, I might walk out the door disposed toward loving whoever I encounter, wherever I encounter them.
Loving your neighbor as yourself is the most imaginative thing you can do, I remind myself. Trying on the traits of all four Chance brothers—Everett’s robust appetites, Peter’s spiritual center, Irwin’s birdlike laugh, Kincaid’s quiet dignity—I learn something about what it’s like to live their way. Keeping watch with Everett, I begin picturing the answers to his prayers.
Reading The Brothers K, I take another step into John’s life, someone who treats the book like a talisman and a test of true friendship—a test I think I’m passing.
The imagination, a gift of the divine, never wants to lose touch with reality—but to recreate it. The capacity for love grows with each life we encounter, in fiction or the flesh. Escape routes become entry points if we only let them.
O thing that connects us. How clumsily I thank you.