Born Brothers Summary
Woiwode calls this novel a “companion volume” to Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and it returns to the characters and setting of that work. Beginning in the middle of the twentieth century, Born Brothers is filtered through the perceptions of Charles Neumiller; through his memories, he is seeking a meaning and purpose for his life. As elsewhere, Woiwode eschews chronological narrative, and the present is submerged deeply into the past. The novel progresses through various memories of Charles. To speak of a plot or setting is unhelpful; to force Woiwode’s uniquely fashioned version of family chronicle into such misleading categories is to misconstrue Woiwode’s vision—that lives do not neatly fit into prescribed, sequential patterns. Family members appear in a seemingly random way that shows Charles’s quest for an answer to the plaintive cry of his heart: Is there life after childhood?
A gifted raconteur and orator, Charles has followed his voice into a New York career as a “voiceover” in commercials and as a “radio personality” focused on small-town life. He is thus accustomed to creating illusions and re-creating forgotten, homely images in the minds of his listeners. In fact, he is incapable of conceiving of a meaningful world outside the psychic landscape of his own family structure. Having endured assaults on his marriage and having struggled with alcohol, Charles leaves New York behind for his beloved North Dakota. A suitable anthem for Charles Neumiller’s life can be drawn from his own musings: “Imagination is, indeed, memory—that is more profound than any fantasy.” The events and relationships of the past are as concrete as any the present can offer him.
His childhood and his own fatherhood have profoundly shaped his life in ways that preclude other influences and forces from engaging his life. The minutest detail of a past experience is recalled and rehearsed in Charles’s mind as the reader is invited to share vicariously in its warmth and vitality. Errant smoke from a father’s cigar, a mother’s bedtime stories, a life-threatening fall—each of these recollected events breathes life into Woiwode’s protagonist as he searches for an anchor to hold onto in the storms of modern life.
The thematic key to the novel may be found in a recognition that Charles longs for a restored bond of brotherhood he once shared with his elder brother, Jerome—drawn from a childhood which the adult Charles visits frequently, once again inhabiting what now seems an idyllic Garden of Eden in North Dakota, free from the cares and motivations of prurient, polluted, industrial life. That Charles’s radio job comprised the roles of both the interviewer and the interviewee encapsulates his need for conversion, of freedom from self. He needs an outside, a reference point, which, implicitly, he seeks in Jerome—an affirmation he anticipates but does not truly realize in a New York reunion in a dingy hotel room. If their memories are not “mutual,” he fears, “I might have invented our love.” Ultimately, Woiwode hints, Charles will find “a place to stand” only through a renewed faith in the transcendent, and eventually Charles concedes that the only proof of God’s existence “is God’s existence in you for eternity.”
At times, the tedious details of Charles’s recollections are dizzying, even unedifying. Yet it is the totalizing effect, the sheer volume of Charles’s “unedited” introspections, that gives the novel its weight and its merit. In part, it is Woiwode’s intent to lay the blame for American society’s apparent moral disintegration—rampant promiscuity, unwanted pregnancy, and divorce—to the absence of strong family ties, but he leaves open the question of whether Charles’s captivity to the past is the solution or part of the problem. In the end, Born Brothers can perhaps be received as fiction ’s most ambitious, if not most successful, attempt since the work of French novelist François...
(The entire section is 1,999 words.)