In a review praising John Gardner’s Mickelsson’s Ghosts (1982), Larry Woiwode faults contemporary novelists for their minimalist tendencies. Fiction is in a sad state of affairs, he says, when a writer may turn to the reader and explain that a character’s room will not be described because it is uninteresting. For a reader finishing Woiwode’s 611-page excursion through the mind and life of Charles Neumiller, Born Brothers may well seem a massive rescue job done on that neglected world, a world which treats the main character badly enough to engender the cynical reticence Woiwode gracefully criticizes in his fellow writers’ work.
Late in Born Brothers, Charles Neumiller stands on the plains of North Dakota, which he has recently reclaimed as home after decades of exile, and, in the midst of a most evocative meditation, thinks: “The more age permits my imagination to extend under this sky, the more details register and lead me to understand that imagination is, indeed, memory—what is more profound than any fantasy.” This Charles, a radio personality, will not spurn the rooms in which he has lived. The story of his life, Born Brothers, is generated in form and content by memory, a rampant river, flowing between his ears, of events and voices. Amid all the matter dredged up by this memory—scooters, bicycles, parents, automobiles, girlfriends, immunizations—the rooms into and out of which Charles finds himself moving serve as symbols of persistent restlessness, isolation, and loneliness. The trapped note is sounded in the narrators’ first sentence, “I’m back on my back in that room in the Chesro . . .” (a run-down New York hotel where the feverished Charles awaits his brother’s visit), and reverberates in the final words of failed-suicide Charles at novel’s end: “And then all doors slam shut on us in the consuming light of our end.”
Readers of Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975) are acquainted with Charles Neumiller, but that book also encompassed nearly every Neumiller who had drawn breath in the last one hundred years. With similar comprehensiveness, Born Brothers tangles with individual selfhood. This self, Charles, has a brother a year and a half his senior, who unites from childhood with Charles’s sense of himself, as twins are said to do. This union, like a perpetually incomplete cell division, exists in a flux of events and places which the brother, Jerome, survives to become a physician, but which Charles is fated to remember and remember. His native gifts as a raconteur seem to promise him a future as a storyteller and actor. Charles is blessed with a remarkable voice and an equally remarkable ear, capable of winning for him a statewide high school speaking competition. Yet he also has an internal chorus which he cannot successfully command, though he does claim to have learned to pause when questioned, to censor or admit the passing of the words which rush to his tongue. He is strange indeed, a fact which he has known from the beginning of his life.
Woiwode’s way with this self is never humorous or comic, as the above might suggest he could be. A light treatment would admit fantasy, such as in Charles’s own invention of the mad German scientist in one of his early monologues. “Accept this person,” Woiwode seems to say, “with the seriousness with which you would welcome me if I entered the room to speak to you of myself.” Walt Whitman asked for no less, and baby Charles, sitting alone on a North Dakota lawn, inaugurates the theme: “My white shoes on the grass beyond, on its spears and sheaves, are lumps of truth.” These are the shoes that everyone has seen—the shoes a mother saves and sometimes sends out to be preserved in bronze. Woiwode’s novel seems intent on the same type of preservation for Charles’s memories, while taking up the challenge of another writer concerned with the life of families, James Agee, who wonders, in the preface to A Death in the Family (1957), “who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth.”
Charles’s father, Martin Neumiller, struggles with his own case of never-arriving. His series of occupations—teacher, salesman, carpenter, teacher—includes in its oblivious sweep a number of different houses which are abandoned just as the family seems to have settled in. After one such move, Alpha’s difficult pregnancy is complicated by congenital anemia. The baby dies, the mother dies, and the boys remain with their father in a former gasoline station that is being remodeled as a home. The lived-in-while-being-built unsettledness of the place wore out the mother as much as her other ailments, and this unsettledness foresees the contours of Charles’s future life. As he ages, Charles is much preoccupied with fixing things up—polishing doorknobs after scraping off layers of paint, refinishing a ceiling while his daughter watches, barricading himself properly behind a door when working at his lastest recording project. Whenever fixing is being done in the novel, as in the conversion of the gutted gasoline station, a concomitant destruction is afoot, whether the bulldozing of a neighbor’s house or the blowing up of a service station the brothers visit for something cold to drink.
Are things ever contained properly, the novelist asks, whether the fumes which ignite to transform a peaceful day in Illinois into an apocalyptic scene, or the members of a family who willingly pursue the ideal of union through time? The Neumillers’ center was a mother, Alpha, whose bedtime stories read aloud to her sons are remembered by Charles as a togetherness as sweetly intimate as could be desired: “Then I’m gone, a speck outside myself, circulating in the currents spreading from her throat, near her source, until I feel her gather for the end. . . .” (Woiwode entrusts the narrative voice throughout the novel to the first-person present tense, bent on...