This boyhood memoir reveals much more than it ever explicitly states, with its tight focus on boyhood, brotherhood, estrangement, and reconciliation.
An art professor and National Book Award–winning illustrator (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 2011), Moser writes that his older brother, Tommy, was actually the better artist of the two. He was also more troubled, though when Tommy gets the climactic chance to speak (or write) in his own words, a different perspective emerges. “Most of my memories of that time have the visual qualities of dreams: the images are slightly out of focus and dissolve at the edge,” writes the author. “The palette is muted and nearly void of color.” With a prose style that is precise, understated, and that rarely veers toward sentimentality, Moser describes coming of age in Chattanooga in an era permeated by racism and where any sign of oddness or weakness encouraged bullying. Both boys carried a “chip of inferiority”—the author was fat, dyslexic, and not athletic; his brother had developmental problems that kept him behind in school. With his brother as instigator (in the author’s memory), they fought so hard that the police once were summoned. Tommy dropped out of military school, remained an apparently unrepentant racist, and enjoyed more of a successful life than one might have expected. The author rejected the racism of his upbringing, studied theology, and became a preacher before he found renown as an artist (his illustrations highlight the chapters). Yet the narrative isn’t simply that black and white—their mother’s best, lifelong friend was black, and both boys enjoyed playing with a black friend—and a climactic exchange of letters suggests how deeply each brother had misjudged the other through their extended estrangement of adulthood. Before Tommy’s death, they enjoyed eight years of a brotherhood they had never known before, and the author describes the book as “an homage to him as well as a history of our burdened brotherhood.”
With masterful narrative control, Moser reveals the narrowness of perspective as well as the limitations of memory.