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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

`Brothers K' an American epic done Russian-style
Duncan novel tackles Northwest themes in grand Kesey tradition

At a glance
The Brothers K
by David James Duncan

Bantam Books
643 pages, $$14.95

To say that David James Duncan's novel ``The Brothers K'' is ambitious is like saying that Bill Clinton's administration was ``somewhat eventful.''

When the ``The Brothers K'' was first published in 1992, readers were overwhelmed by the scope of this novel. It's a sweeping American epic about baseball, about the Vietnam War, about the Northwest, about exile, about the Kwakiutl Indians -- and even about the Seventh Day Adventist Church, for heaven's sake. It is, quite clearly, an attempt to capture the richness, volatility and insanity of America in the 1960s and 1970s.

And if all that weren't enough, it's also Duncan's attempt to write a big Russian novel, but one that is set in Camas and Vancouver, Wash., not in Moscow or the Ukraine. Thus the title, which is both completely American (``K'' being the baseball symbol for strikeout) and completely Russian (``The Brothers Karamazov'').

Does it succeed as a grand Russian epic? I don't know. Maybe a Russian literature expert could answer that question, but I cannot. I fear that most of the book's Russian parallels went completely over my head. (Smart readers, or the ones with lots of time on their hands, would read this and ``The Brothers Karamazov,'' right in a row).

Yet as an American epic, I found ``The Brothers K'' to be a tour de force. Ten years after I first read it, I am still in awe of Duncan's ability to draw on themes as varied as Buddha, the Bible and Roger Maris to create a family saga that challenges the head as well as the heart. Of all of the books written about the volatile '60s, this one best captures the complex dynamics of what was called the Generation Gap. As ``The Brothers K'' shows us, this was more than just a gap. It was a profound cultural civil war.

It follows the Chance family, whose patriarch is an old bush-league pitcher given a new lease on life, whose matriarch is a devout Seventh Day Adventist, and whose children are prone to rebellion.

Only Jonathan Franzen's ``The Corrections'' comes close to illuminating the ambivalence, guilt and love that underlies a conflict between the generations.

And I think it has particular resonance for those of us in the Northwest. The members of the Chance family represent a particular brand of stubborn, plaid-shirted Northwest individualist, in the Ken Kesey tradition.

``The Brothers K'' is a difficult book. Even those of us who admire it will admit that. You may find your brain whiplashed between theories of pacifism and theories of batting statistics. The forest of themes, of characters, of interconnecting plots, can occasionally seem trackless.

In addition, Duncan's style can be difficult to track. Sometimes he veers into Tom Wolfe-style hyperbole and free-verse baseball lyricism. One passage goes like this: ``And the ball in his hand crashes/ Moose's finger brushes/ onto Moose's foot/ against home plate/ too close to tell/ tie goes to the runner?''

Yet stick with it. Most of Duncan's writing is vivid, lucid and full of humor and surprise. By the end, you'll have a better understanding of America in this complicated time, of one unique Northwest family, and, not least, of the meaning of baseball.

This is not my favorite David James Duncan novel. That would be his first, ``The River Why,'' a wild and hilarious saga of a fanatic Northwest fly-fisher.

Yet the novel I am most in awe of? ``The Brothers K.''

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