David Berg has written a book that makes me think I’d like to be friends with him. No book that I’ve encountered so far this year has a voice that is as assured and entertaining as Berg’s in this uncanny, addictive memoir. In Run, Brother, Run: A Memoir of a Murder in My Family, Berg seems like a kind, witty, brave man. He’s also tender, mordant, rueful and brave as he hunts down the unwelcome facts about his brother Alan’s 1968 murder outside Houston. He comes across as a little testy – cocky, even. There is no real reason to doubt that the narrative voice he cultivates in Run, Brother, Run is anything other than what he is like in person, even though the voice any nonfiction author writing in first person adopts is in some degree a character. David’s confessions in the book – about his botched suicide attempt at a young age, his early failures as a lawyer, his feelings of guilt about his brother’s murder – feel disarming and not at all ostentatious.
David is now a high-powered, nationally respected Texas trial lawyer who’s argued a case before the Supreme Court (after successfully making his point at the end of the trial, he pocketed four quill pens from the counsel table before walking out). His previous book, The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win, is a continual bestseller among people who are apt to purchase books titled The Trial Lawyer: What It Takes to Win. Here in Run, Brother, Run, however, David meticulously rummages among the pimps, card sharks, murderers, hit men, gamblers and drug dealers from all those years ago who lurked in and out of his brother and father’s lives. Alan was a hot-headed teenager who would pop into his younger brother’s life when it suited him. Alan eventually got straight enough to get accepted to medical school. He never showed up for class, though, and ended up working with he and David’s father, Nathan, in an unscrupulous business selling carpet to people in Houston in the 1960’s who could barely afford the regular price of the stuff, much less the inflated version Alan and his father were hawking. After doing well in Houston, Alan and Nathan opened shop in San Antonio. That is where the path that leads to Alan’s murder begins.
Alan wasn’t perfect, but to his younger brother, he was the cool friend who would listen and look out for him when their hard-hearted father refused. “Let me tell you something, kid,” Alan said to David after David tried killing himself. “I love you with all my heart. But the next time you try to kill yourself, you better be successful. Because if you’re not, I’ll kill you myself.”
The man who killed Alan is Woody Harrelson’s father, something David reveals early on in the book. Charles Harrelson died in 2007 at a super-maximum prison in Colo.; among other victims, he shot a federal judge in San Antonio in 1979. In the prologue to Run, Brother, Run, David calls Harrelson’s trial for Alan’s murder “the most perfect illustration of courtroom injustice I have encountered in more than forty years of trial law.” The Houston police thought Alan had runaway from his pregnant wife and didn’t investigate his death, so Nathan hired his own private investigators.
David still mourns his brother in Run, Brother, Run, but his sadness is tinged with a hard-boiled bemusement. This guy doesn’t like what happened but he’s able to recall the dark comedy of having his brother murdered while he was fumbling toward becoming a respected trial lawyer. He describes the Houston Post reporter who seems to have had a thing for an accomplice in the murder as a “slobbering” reporter. “I wanted to be known as the motherfucker who won impossible cases, not as the rookie lawyer whose reckless brother had gotten himself killed,” David writes.
A book whose narrator is this confident is usually written by someone who’s published more than just one previous book. David says his editor had to take the manuscript away from him because David tinkered with it too much. He admits to being a little OCD. “I’m acutely conscious that if you don’t write the way you talk, it sounds pretentious and it sounds like a script,” David tells me.
Strangely for a writer who’s as plainspoken as he is, David is a fan of poetry. “If anything influences the way I write that would be my love of poetry: Auden and Yeats and Elliott, that old anti-Semite,” he says. “It may come as a surprise,” he adds.
He is a slow reader, which he says forces him to study the structure of sentences, how they move and affect the reader. But the undeniable factor that makes this book a joy to read has less to do with literary history and more with David’s workaday world. The law has taught him to admire facts. “I tried to be as objective as possible,” he says.
Run, Brother, Run is thrilling to read because after all this time since Alan’s murder occurred, his younger brother is determined to know what happened regardless of how sordid, sad or harrowing the details. There’s a bravery to this book. “I treated it as I would any case in my office and investigate people as thoroughly as I could,” David says.
“One of the strengths of lawyers is I think the ability to see the weakness in your own side, so I took a very cold-eyed view of all the facts.” That’s fine if you’re a writer who’s been hired to tell the true-crime account of someone you’d never met before, but your own brother? “You can’t do that entirely when it’s your own brother but I tried to be as detailed, as honest as I could be,” David says. “When you write a memoir, you have to decide if it’s going to be written for yourself or for other people, and obviously it’s for yourself.”
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.