Schwerbrock (A Joker and Four Aces, 2014) examines the opposite paths of two brothers in this literary novel.
Brothers Jess and Jim Smith have a difficult life from the beginning. Their father is a deadbeat, and their mother, Caroline, hasn’t fared well since he left, turning to alcohol and feeling forsaken by the world and her small-minded hometown. Growing up poor in a small town makes the boys easy targets, all the more so because Caroline is one of the few nonchurchgoers in the community, and various religious sects define the place’s culture. Still, the boys have each other, and they find solace and much-needed income on their landlord’s farm and in the surrounding woods, laboring, fishing, trapping, and hunting. But over time, the boys grow apart, and their lives take them in radically different directions. Jess sees himself as a realist and strives to be more a part of the town, while Jim concentrates on the power of knowledge, using it to escape the place as their mother never could, even if she doesn’t approve of his choice to become the titular horse doctor. She envisions him as a physician, but he can’t face the trauma of human suffering (“Nobody expects a dog to live to be 80 years old”). Still, life invariably delivers tragedy, and this family knows that more than most. The story is deeply character-driven, but rather than showing the reader a great deal of introspection or interior lives, the players’ actions and histories speak for themselves. In fact, the novel is a little light on the description and atmosphere one might expect from contemporary literary fiction, which may make it harder for some readers to get a firm sense of place and truly inhabit Jess and Jim’s world. On the other hand, the focus on characters’ actions allows the complex narrative to present not just a few defining moments in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, but also a larger swath of events, ultimately painting a much clearer picture with an almost Hemingway-esque quality of prose and structure. The addition of classic literature, Scripture, and hands-on knowledge of hunting, farming, and horse trades brings the novel alive, making it a real treat with an eye toward parts of the American experience that often get short shrift in contemporary fiction.
A sharp, engaging, and sometimes-painful portrait of family and nature.