BROTHERS AND KEEPERS by John Edgar Wideman


A Memoir
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Since 1975, when his younger brother Robby was arrested (and later jailed) for armed robbery and murder, professor/novelist Wideman (Hurry Home, The Lynchers) has been wrestling with this situation--as a family tragedy, as a sociological puzzle, as a personal torment, as material for his fiction.

Here, then, after long prison-visit talks with Robby, Wideman tries to put it all together--in a dense, restless, tortured mosaic that only occasionally adds illumination to the central knot of anguish. An opening section moves from memories of the 1975 nightmare (a brief visit from fugitive Robby before the arrest) to musings on the brotherly bond, lyrical/earthy vignettes from Pittsburgh family-history, Wideman's guilt over rejecting his black background ("Fear marched along beside guilt"), and an evocation of a visit to Robby in prison. Then, after a strong close-up of Wideman's mother, embittered and "radicalized" by her son's fate, Robby's own recollections take over: childhood jealousy of his successful older siblings, staking out his own territory ("I had to be a rebel"), and becoming a street-smart hood--especially after getting hooked on drugs. ("One day you the King. Next day dope got you and it's the King.") Unfortunately, however, Bobby's confessions--a long, naturalistic drone of shooting up, dealing, stealing--aren't distinctive or revealing enough to deepen the drama here or to help explain the basic mystery: why is one brother a professor in Wyoming, the other in for life at a Pennsylvania penitentiary? And Wideman's own broodings, though sometimes eloquent as they rub salt into the wound, end up pretty much where they begin--despite shifting voices, poetic flights, and verbose, repetitious wrestlings along the way. ("We can't get any further. It's a familiar place. A treacherous convergence of selfishness and caring for another and ego and wanting to be bigger, better than you are and valuing the truth and profiting from untruth and wishing for the best and dreading the worst; a welter of conflicting emotions, a nexus of irresolution and despair, of self-pity and self-disgust, desire and guilt.")

A frustrating book, then--with a powerful initial grab, some of the virtues of fiction (texture and emotion), but only sporadic flickers of drama and insight amid the narrative convolutions.
Pub Date: Oct. 29th, 1984
ISBN: 0618509631
Page count: 276pp
Publisher: Holt Rinehart & Winston
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1984


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