There’s a book so good, and so universal, that I can recommend it to you with complete confidence without knowing who you are. It does precisely what great literature is there for: articulating the human condition.
Each of my parents count the book as their favorite. They each read it as young adults, and then aloud it each other when I was a kid; I’d hear them weeping from their upstairs bedroom. I read it as an 18-year-old and it immediately became my favorite too. When I started working at a bookstore a couple years later, I wrote a staff selection declaring it the “Great American Novel,” and I’d hand-sell it to absolutely anyone who asked me for a recommendation. The book was over a decade old and was never a bestseller, but we kept a half-dozen copies in stock at all times to keep up with the newfound demand.
The book is called The Brothers K (yes, like the Dostoyevsky, but without the “aramazov”). It’s by Oregon novelist and essayist David James Duncan, and it was released in 1992. You should read it, you’ll thank me later.
The Brothers K is about the Chance family of Camas, Washington. The patriarch of the family is the memorable “Papa” Chance, a former minor league baseball pitcher. He and his deeply religious wife have six children: four boys and two young twin girls. The boys take turns as protagonists of a story primarily narrated by the youngest, Kincaid, who relates the exploits of his older brothers. The eldest is Everett, who passionately protests the Vietnam War and writes beautiful love letters. Peter is a naturally gifted athlete who prefers academics and spiritual enlightenment. And the guileless Irwin, my cat’s namesake, is deeply loyal and religious when he’s sent to fight in the war.
The boys all love baseball and are deeply invested in their father’s return to the sport after an accident at his mill job. Perfect, poetic baseball analogies are woven throughout the book. Reading it ignited a love of baseball in me that has influenced my life dramatically, and I’m permanently grateful. Duncan imbues the game with so much meaning that I can’t shake — when I’m watching a game now, I see so much emotion and humanity playing out on the field that it’s like going to the opera. As Duncan writes in the book, “Baseball is not life. It is a fiction, a metaphor. And a ballplayer is a man who agrees to uphold that metaphor as though lives were at stake.”
Still, while I’m a sucker for baseball, that’s not all that The Brothers K is about.
The conflict in the book is largely derived from the different characters’ varied experiences with religion and spirituality. The family’s matriarch is intensely devoted to her church, and she has her reasons, secrets she keeps closely guarded. One of her sons sits at her side at church, another becomes an atheist, another a devout buddhist. Meanwhile, the kid sisters play “Famous Scientists,” performing memorable experiments such as “centrifuging flickers.” The characters are all seeking meaning, but how they arrive there is a tangly maze of different paths.
Where they end up, though, is what is at the heart of this wonderful novel. The plot’s structure is somewhat reminiscent of Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. The books both open at a family’s home, and in each, the children spin further and further away, experiencing their own adventures, romances, and trials. But at the end, they are pulled back together and that’s where their deepest revelations occur.
If all of this stuff about baseball and brothers and church doesn’t seem like it would speak to you, I understand. There’s nothing about the actual plot of The Brothers K that I should be able to relate to directly. No one in my family is particularly religious. Baseball was the sport my family cared about the most, but that’s a textbook case of damning with faint praise. I’ve never had a direct experience with war, traveling to distant countries, and I’m not a young man.
But The Brothers K is the kind of book that reaches out from experiences that might seem completely different from your own and reminds you how much we all have in common after all. And while the Chance family isn’t anything like my own, the books most underlying themes of forgiveness and acceptance are universal. Reading it for the third time recently reminded me again of the emotional impact it had on me before I’d even opened it myself — overhearing my parents reading it aloud to each other.
I asked my dad about his experience with the book, and he wrote me an email. “I read the book following the recommendation of a family member, and enjoyed it immensely. The last few chapters flew by, the characters having been well established and the plot taking over. Subsequently, perhaps a few years later, I read it aloud to a loved one who, like me, had already read the book. That reading experience is one of the most important of my life, definitely the reading high point of a life-long book lover’s life. I remember laughing a lot while reading aloud, I remember my face hurting from so much smiling, and I remember reading through tears, which is very hard to do.”
My dad concluded, “When I’m in a bookstore new to me, I find myself checking the stacks for a copy of this singular novel. It’s not so much to judge the bookstore, but more to calm myself in a way, to realize the bookstore is on my side and I can trust its selections. I have heard the term ‘Great American Novel’ all my life, but only one book, in its entirety, fits the bill, and no other novel, not even one of the great ones, I’ve ever read is a close second.”
After many years of book-selling, I have countless lists of book recommendations in my head: books for laughing out loud, books for a broken heart, books for dads, books for little sisters, books for learning, books for weddings, books for reading out loud, books for the beach, and books for the bus. The Brothers K is all of it and more. For me, it sealed what I had previously seen as a great canyon of misunderstanding between me and everyone else in the world. It made me realize how much of what I feel is universal, it strengthened the bond between me and each of my parents, and it inspired me start learning how to keep score at ballgames.