Brotherly Love is a not-quite-typical example of the fictional mode, common and perhaps even dominant in the 1980’s and into the 1990’s, that might be called black realism. Spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, the characters in such fiction are adrift. Their work is never a true vocation; it serves no important social function and exists only to fulfill desires that are often extravagantly greedy. Similarly, relationships are rarely serious, rarely last, exist primarily to gratify the senses and the ego. Often the pace and the prose of such fiction are languorous; in this novel, refreshingly, they are energetic. In one vital respect, moreover, Brotherly Love differs from and is superior to ordinary black realism: it contains a moral center. This alone, apart from the commoner virtue of gritty verisimilitude, makes it worth reading and pondering.
By beginning with a newspaper story recounting the violent death of the central characters, Pete Dexter imbues his story with a sense of dark inevitability: “Southeastern Pennsylvania Trade Union Council President Michael Flood and his brother, Peter, were found shot to death yesterday in what police sources have described as a ‘mob hit.’” The story goes on to mention that Michael’s father “was killed 16 years ago when a bomb rigged to his front door went off as he entered his South Philadelphia home.” This is taut exposition, with an incisive narrative hook, and, in retrospect, introduction of a central theme: In the world of this novel, shoddy and dishonest work is endemic. The reporter did not bother to get his facts straight: Michael’s father was murdered twelve years earlier, not sixteen; Michael and Peter were cousins, not brothers. The police, corrupt and lazy, never solved the earlier crime; they will write this one off, incorrectly, as mob violence as well.
In this novel, more clearly than in most, there is a single, straightforward precipitating event. During the winter of 1961, Peter, then aged eight, had been charged with watching his baby sister. In this careless and casually vicious world, the accident or some terrible accident seems almost inevitable: A car, coming too fast, skids on the ice; a dangerous dog prevents the boy from getting to his sister as she bolts into the street; an innocent child dies. As a direct result, Peter and his cousin Michael die twenty-five years later. The chain of causality remains unbroken for all those years, however, because of comprehensive and widespread human failure. A careless driver kills Peter’s sister; greed, narcissism, a destructive code of honor, the inability to love do the rest.
Peter’s family lacks the resources to weather the tragedy. They seem almost entirely unable or unwilling to communicate, particularly to express feeling. The father and mother are married in no sense other than legal, the biological parents of Peter but nothing more. His mother withdraws into silence, into mental illness, and ultimately leaves the family. His father is obsessed with avenging himself on the driver, a police lieutenant who lives next door, who killed his child. According to his primitive code, nothing but a death for a death can make it right; and finally he does kill the man, which of course makes things more wrong. He himself is killed in retribution, not because murder is a capital crime, but because he rocked the boat: He acted against the prudent counsel of his superior in the mob. Peter is thus left feeling responsible not only for the death of his sister but also for the destruction of his family. Meanwhile, Peter’s uncle, Phillip Flood, moves his own family into Peter’s house and works to consolidate and advance his position in the union. Human loss translates in this world into nothing more than a power vacuum, to be filled as quickly and smoothly as possible.
Part 2 of Brotherly Love, set in 1966 when Peter is thirteen, introduces the moral center of the book. It is surely no coincidence that Nick DiMaggio—retired prize fighter and owner of a small training gym, honest and competent mechanic, devoted father to his nine-year-old son—shares the name of a famous and much-honored athlete. The Floods’s neighbor in South Philadelphia, he has been careful to distance himself from that tragically violent, mob-shadowed clan. To come to the attention of Phillip Flood is dangerous, he senses, and indeed has near-fatal consequences for him in the end.
Nevertheless, when Peter and Michael are confronted by four older black boys intent on stealing everything they have, including their shoes, he decides to intervene—but only on condition that the boys attempt to stand up for themselves. Michael breaks away and runs, leaving his shoes; Peter throws a soft, scared punch, the best he can do, and Nick, with his boxer’s power and craft, rescues him. This scene reveals a great deal about the novel’s values and its sense of reality. For it is Michael, the physical coward, who ultimately becomes the corrupt, pathologically violent union boss. Competence as a fighter, competence as a roofer in this blue- collar union, counts for less...
(The entire section is 2100 words.)