The intricate challenge that brothers pose for each other, aptly characterized by the playwright Athol Fugard as a “blood knot,” is right up there with the most intense, frustrating, rewarding and self-defining of social bonds. If I speak from experience, having one brother, think how much more is George Howe Colt, with three — an older, Harry, and two younger, Ned and Mark — authorized to expatiate on the subject. Anyone who’s had the pleasure of reading Colt’s previous, National Book Award-nominated work, “The Big House” (2003), will know his delicate, detailed, ironically self-mocking way with prose, and his lucid, affectionate fair-mindedness. That book dealt mainly with the generational fortunes of his Boston/Cape Cod WASP clan; the present one, “Brothers,” is more a meditation on himself and his contemporaries, seen through the fraternal lenses.
But that is only a part of this ambitious study, and by no means the most interesting. Subtitled “On His Brothers and Brothers in History,” it attempts nothing less than an exploration of the full range of male sibling relationships. At its heart are five extended historical narratives, each emblematic of a different fraternal dynamic: the prominent actors Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, exemplifying in broad terms the good brother and the bad; John and Will Kellogg, a feuding, litigious, brother-against-brother pair in Battle Creek, Mich., the former a health spa guru, the latter a cereal king; Theo and Vincent van Gogh, a “brother’s keeper” tale of mutual dependence; the Marx Brothers, who in spite of their profound disharmony functioned for decades as a corporation of zanies; and John Thoreau, a protective older sibling whose death spurred the younger Henry’s loss and grief into literary achievement. Though some of these cases may seem at first overly familiar, Colt has done a prodigious job of research and synthesis, and his skill at storytelling is such that each of them is transformed into something fresh, dramatic and emotionally piercing.
These meaty accounts, approaching novella length, are supplemented by briefer examples drawn from every conceivable brother act: the Kennedys, DiMaggios, James boys (both outlaws and authors), Manns, Capones, Wrights, Rothschilds, Lehmans, Mayos, Collyers, Clarks, Kaczynskis, Bachs, Joyces, Chaplins, Bushes, Grimms, Goncourts, Nicholases, Disneys, Gershwins, Waughs. . . . Psychological and sociological studies are also cited in analyses of birth order, parental favoritism, sibling rivalry, the pigeonholing of traits and the developing of one’s own niche, and the prevalence of sibling aggression among animals. Siblicide does indeed occur in nature: “Sand tiger sharks . . . devour one another inside their mother’s womb,” while “spadefoot tadpoles are more considerate; they taste other tadpoles before devouring them in order to determine whether their prospective meal is a relative. If they accidentally swallow a sibling, they spit it out, but if food is scarce, they become less gastronomically discriminating and gobble up any passing tadpole, related or not.” Humans are relatively gentler, we learn: brothers under the age of 7 fight only “every 17 minutes.”
How is it, Colt ponders, that two brothers like the Booths who were reared in the same family can be so different? “Psychologists say that the experience of each child within a family is so distinct that each grows up in his own unique ‘microenvironment,’ ” he writes. “In effect, each sibling grows up in a different family.”
He alternates historical and scientific material with chapters about his brothers and himself. I love the chapter where he describes the competitive atmosphere in which he grew up. Here is an excerpt:
“Part of the reason I craved attention was that with three young boys in one house,I harbored the suspicion that there might not be enough to go around and I’d better make sure I got my fair share-or preferably,a little more. Harry,Ned and I rarely fought physically,but there seemed to be nothing we didn’t contest:who found the most foil-wrapped chocolate eggs in the backyard at Easter;who collected the most Halloween candy;who could make a popsicle last the longest;who got the first look at the Sear catalog;who got the Sunday funnies first;who had the best godparents(i.e. whose godparents gave the best presents).Stakes were high at the dinner table.Who got the biggest chicken breast? Who got the biggest piece of bacon on his cheese dream?” He then goes on to say that the “Holy Grail was the prize at the bottom of the cereal box”. This part literally made me laugh at loud remembering my own kids when they were small….