Set in 1997, Mohrbacher’s (The Magic Fault, 2014) novel explores the reunion of two estranged brothers.
Even in their 60s, Nick and Ben don’t get along. A specialist in clinical psychology, Nick is a hedonist in California while Ben is a straight-edged academic in his hometown, Bismarck, North Dakota. Ben learns that Nick is ill and in assisted living. Not having seen him in 12 years, Ben reluctantly travels to San Mateo to visit him. But he has ulterior motives. Jeanne Marie, Ben’s wife, passed away, and he is convinced Nick knows something about the circumstances surrounding her death. On the brothers’ first night out, they meet two women: Bonnie and Joyce. Immediately, the four grow close, and both women help Ben take care of “Doctor Nick,” who often makes a scene. For example, the three heard Nick “smash a bottle, probably against the bathtub, and then another one, and then a third. He had finished all three. We could hear cabinets slamming.” Over the years, Nick became a miracle worker helping sundowners—people with dementia who grow uneasy as the day goes by—overcome their anxieties. Before Ben’s arrival, Nick fell into a diabetic coma and was found homeless and unconscious. He recovered but now suffers from severe memory loss. In several affecting scenes, Ben tries to reconstruct Nick’s memory by visiting Nick’s old haunts: a McDonald’s, his old apartment, a homeless shelter, and Stern Grove Park. Mohrbacher develops his characters with great attention to detail, though Ben’s reflections can feel redundant. For instance, Ben is often “after bigger things”—to understand his wife’s death—but the reader doesn’t get a resolution until much later in the book. Sometimes, however, hints of humanity break through the surface: Ben says, “and suddenly I felt lonelier than I’d ever felt.” The book could use more contemporary representations of women: they are caretakers, at home, innocent and sexually naïve, or dead. All except for Joyce, who dismisses the patriarchy—once. Though the ending feels rushed, the strength in the brothers’ newfound fraternity will move readers.
A heartfelt exploration of brotherhood and the hardships of growing old.