The Brothers K (David James Duncan, 1996)

Even though I’ve read it half a dozen times, each time I pull my battered copy of The Brothers K by David James Duncan off the shelf, I know it will require putting new batteries in the book light and embracing sleep-deprivation. What is going to happen is no longer a mystery to me, yet Duncan creates the world of his characters with such convincing detail, description, and dialogue that I feel I’m encountering something new and wondrous each time. Duncan’s masterful ability to tell a rich and engaging story is such that I keep reading even though the novel is about (among many other things) baseball. Now I am the last person on the face of the earth to read and enjoy a book about that sport because it calls to mind images of men scratching themselves, spitting, chewing, and standing around for hours on end, staring into space while waiting for their chance to hit a little ball, and suddenly I want to kill myself out of boredom. But Duncan makes me care about baseball.

The Brothers K is the story of the Chance family —mother, father, and six children. The Chances are a modern family, full of hopes and dreams, disappointments and setbacks, dysfunctional partly because of the mother’s rigid fundamentalist Seventh Day religion, and partly because they, like every other family, are a unit made up of very different personalities. Two of the brothers are drafted to fight in Vietnam, for instance, and one goes willingly while the other flees to Canada.

Take a look at an excerpt from the first chapter:
My parents are sitting on the old purple sofa. Mama is peeling oranges on a dish towel spread across her lap, but she’s so hugely pregnant that the peels are collecting clear out between her knees. Papa says that she grew Everett, Peter, Irwin and me inside her one by one, but that she’s gotten so good at it she’s decided to grow two at once this time, to save money, time and trouble. “Now wait just a minute!” Mama always says to this. “Who’s the greedy farmer that planted two seeds at once?” Then they laugh. I don’t get it. They say this and laugh every time anybody stops by these days. If they don’t say it the people look sort of sick, Mama’s stomach is so big, so sometimes they even say it to the same person twice. I still don’t get it. Anyhow she’s huge, and the new two inside her are called The Twins, and once they’re born I won’t be the youngest anymore, and they might be sisters, which might be fun, and Mama will supposedly shrink back to her same old size and act more her same old way. So I guess it’s a good thing. [p.6]

Notice how smoothly Duncan has introduced us to all eight characters? In a single paragraph, we’ve met each member of the family. This wasn’t merely a functional list of their names and ages and birth order (how boring would that be?). Already we’re getting a feel for personality and family dynamics. We see how pregnant Mama is, how the parents relate to one another, how despite a cheerfulness shown to outsiders, Mama isn’t her usual self, because the narrator is looking forward to the birth when hopefully she’ll “act more her same old way.”

And like all good authors, Duncan accomplishes more than one thing in this short section —it’s working on many different levels, whether the reader realizes it or not. He’s also introducing us to the narrator of his story, giving us a feel for his voice and his credibility. The voice of the narrator is that of Kincaid; the youngest brother, but not the baby of the family once the twins are born. And although he’s clearly young, he’s old enough to relay details to us in a reliable way—he doesn’t just say his mom is pregnant, he notices how the peels from her orange “are collecting clear out between her knees.” He’s young enough to be baffled by some of what he observes, like the banter between the two parents which he doesn’t understand; however, his confusion or inability to understand the nuances of adult conversation doesn’t keep him from noting what’s said and telling us about it. Right from the very start, Duncan is alerting us to the fact that we can trust his narrator to give us honest observations of the family; he won’t hide anything from us, even those things he doesn’t fully understand. This means that we’ll be able to sift through the data and come to our own conclusions.

Here’s a longer excerpt to give you a better feel for Duncan’s style and story:
It’s Peter’s turn for Papa’s chair, and he’s lolling in it like a cat on the hood of a warm car, trying to make Everett and Irwin jealous. They don’t even notice. They’re belly-down on the floor with their chins in their hands, watching some baby ducks on TV waddle through a dish of Purina Puppy Chow. “What does that prove?” Everett asks the TV.
“Yeah,” says Irwin. “What does that prove?”
“Ducks’ll eat slugs,” Everett says. “That don’t prove a thing about Purina.”
“Yeah,” says Irwin. “That don’t prove a thing.”
Everett turns to Irwin and glares. Peter watches them and laughs. Irwin’s bigger than Everett, but two years younger, and whatever Everett says or does lately, Irwin says and does the same. Peter thinks it’s funny. Everett thinks it’s idiotic. Irwin doesn’t care if it’s funny or idiotic, he just keeps doing it.
The ducks waddle off. Ed Sullivan waddles on […and] asks if we won’t please give a very warm welcome to a big Russian word I can’t pronounce. The audience applauds. The curtains open. And suddenly the stage is dark and shadowy, no one in sight, and a hidden choir of men with deep Russian voices begins doing some kind of chant with crazy little owl-hoots mixed in where you least expect them. Then, out of the darkness, a V-shaped wedge of shrouded humans comes sailing like geese into a pond, doing something impossible so effortlessly that we watch for some time before Mama whispers, “Lord! Will you look at that!”
There must be twenty-five or thirty of them, all in black hooded robes that reach to the floor and hide their feet, faces and shapes completely. And what’s impossible is that they’re gliding as quietly and smoothly as skaters on ice—and there is no ice. Heads bowed, bodies hidden, the Russians slide through the shadows and over the floor as if they weigh nothing or there’s no one in the robes […].
“They’re so ghostly!” Mama shivers.
“They don’t have any feet!” Irwin yells.
“They have feet all right,” Papa says, “but they’re taking such smooth, tiny steps in under those robes it almost looks like they’re flyin’.”
“But they really don’t have any hands!” yells Irwin.
“They have hands all right,” says Papa, “but they’ve got ‘em stuck up their opposite sleeves. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if they yanked ‘em out and flashed ‘em at us any second now.”
“Isn’t that just like a Russian,” Mama says, “hiding his hands up the wrong sleeves?”
Papa laughs at this—so Irwin laughs, too, though I doubt he has any idea whether it’s just like a Russian or not. But Papa’s right about their hands: when the stage suddenly fills with light the monkish chanting flares into loud, full-throated singing, away fly the robes, out dart the hands, up pop the heads, and there they are: the Russians! And now they’re wearing black boots and pants, puffy white shirts, and fur hats the same size and shape as their beards, as they […] flip over and under each other, and Everett’s and Irwin’s mouths are hanging open, and Mama and Pete are bug-eyed with wonder, and even Papa makes a stunned little bark when they huddle like football players then somehow send one dancer flying most of the way up to the ceiling, doing four or five flips before he sails back down. We’re all so sorry when the dancing ends and Ed Sullivan shambles back out that this time it’s Mama, of all people, who says, “You know what? He is ugly.” […] “Why are we supposed to hate Russia?” Peter asks.
Nobody answers him. Maybe nobody knows. Peter scowls at the silence, then answers himself in a way—by sliding his hands up the opposite sleeves of his sweatshirt.
Hearing Mama stir, I turn just in time to see her set her dish towel full of orange peels in Papa’s lap. He snorts and says thanks-a-lot as if he means the opposite. But she says, “Open it,” so he does. And instead of the mess we expected there are two peeled oranges inside, divided neatly into sections. He says thanks again, this time as if he means it. But this time he doesn’t sound so good—and suddenly he and Mama and all the rest of us are staring at the brace and bandage on his left hand, realizing why she peeled the oranges for him, living all over again the night last month when the graveyard-shift foreman called, long past midnight from the Crown Zellerbach mill…
He said Papa had been hurt by the rollers at the mill, named a hospital, and Mama was so stunned that she hung up before he could say another word. Her shouts woke us and brought us running to the kitchen, but before we had time to think she curdled our brains with a scream—because a man, Papa’s friend Roy, was standing in the dark outside the window. When we recognized him and let him in, Roy sat down and told us what happened—told how Papa had rested his hand, for an instant, on a pair of big metal paper-rollers, how someone somewhere had picked that same instant to flip a switch, how in the next instant his left thumb had spun into the rollers and come out again, flat as a newspaper, how the mill sounds like stormsurf when it’s running full-bore, yet at his lathe three hundred feet away Roy had heard Papa’s scream. “Let me drive you,” he said, when a full minute passed and none of us had moved or spoken, because none of us could imagine Papa screaming, no matter what. Then came the rush to the hospital, the interminable wait, and finally the coldness of the surgeon as he called us into his office […] “the man, er, worker, your father— No, son! What’s your name?…Well, Everett, shuttup and listen! I’m trying to tell you no. Not with that thumb. Your father will never pitch, or play any kind of baseball, again…[pp. 6-9]

At this point, I’m a goner. Duncan has made me care, in the space of two pages, very passionately about a family of eight, and very deeply about baseball. For Papa’s sake, I will gladly learn all I can about the sport that was so important to him, about the suffering he must be experiencing—that clearly the entire family is experiencing—over his not being able to play anymore.

And Duncan is not only laying out the plot —this happened, then this happened, then this— but he has chosen details that are layered with significance. Since he’s writing about a family watching television, he could have chosen almost any program, but he chooses Russian dancers on the Ed Sullivan show. This gives us a great feel for the setting and the time period in which the story is taking place—obviously this is before the advent of Cirque du Soleil, when people would still be bowled over by Russian dancing acrobats.

The fact that they’re Russian is important, too, for Peter asks why we’re supposed to hate Russia. The fabric of the time period, the cold war, is firm in our minds, and we also see that Peter, who scowls when no one answers his question, is politically aware and unwilling to accept hatred toward an entire country as a result of politics. In fact, he mimics them, showing his solidarity, by shoving his hands up his sleeves. This seemingly innocent detail is, in fact, a clue to understanding who Peter is, the choices he makes as the novel unfolds, and the trials he endures as he grows and matures.

We’ve also learned key things about the other characters. We see Irwin’s gullibility (“But they really don’t have any hands!” he yelled) and Papa’s patient response. We see that even when the whole family is gaping in wonder at the television, our little narrator is keen enough to get beyond his own astonishment to relay to us each person’s reaction to what’s happening. And when Ed Sullivan comes back on, ending the dancers’ routine, “it’s Mama, of all people, who says, ‘You know what? He is ugly.’” Here is a subtle, but key indication that no matter what Mama says or does in the future, no matter how unbending and harsh, she is capable of surprising us and others. Perhaps she’s even capable of change. This is writing at its best—engaging, lively, believable, and resonant because it’s doing so much more than simply relaying plot.

Here’s one last paragraph from this section. Mama has just given Papa the towel with the peeled oranges and everyone is thinking about Papa’s accident:
Yet as we watch him now, our own faces falling, Papa is somehow able to maintain his poker face. And then his off hand, the good one, starts flickering faster than my eye can follow and orange slices go flying like Russian dancers. Everett, Irwin and Peter all catch their slices, and Pete has to whip his hands out of his sleeves to do it. My slice bounces right off my open mouth, but Papa’s everywhere hand somehow darts out, catches it, stuffs it back in. Mama just cringes, hunches, and hides behind her hands, yet when Papa’s hand is through flickering there are three slices in her lap, one for her and two for the twins. So just like that we’re all chewing and laughing instead of staring at braces and bandages. And just about the time we’ve all swallowed and begun wondering just how much consolation a few orange slices can be, Papa, still poker-faced, sends seven more of them flying through the air. [pp. 9-10]

Here is an ordinary scene that could be a part of any of our own experiences. A night of television, an orange for a snack, parents bantering, a member of the family hurting, and everyone gathered around, hurting, too. What is grace within the context of life-changing illness or tragedy? So often I think it’s something momentous or earth-shaking—like a cure, a word that will wipe away the worry lines in the other person’s face or a gesture that will remind them once and for all that God doesn’t abandon us in our pain. But how often does grace actually look like this? Duncan makes me realize that grace truly can be as simple as watching television in the community of loved ones.

If reading the excerpts included here gave you the feeling that you had just been introduced to a wonderful, lively family engaged in the difficult business of trying to live in a broken world, you’re sure to love The Brothers K. It’s a book worth reading, worth savoring.


1. The title of the book, The Brothers K, is an allusion to the Russian novel, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. What is the significance of Duncan’s title?

2. Was Kincaid a good narrator? Why do you think Duncan chose to tell the story through him? How would the book have been different if he had used a different narrator or chosen to make the point of view truly omniscient?

3. Which characters did you like the most? Which ones did you sympathize with? Did you dislike any of the characters? Why?

4. What did you think about Kincaid’s dream about the kingdom of heaven? How did it impact him? If you believe in heaven, have you ever thought or dreamed of what it would really be like? From what or whom have you formulated your ideas about heaven? Can you relate to Kincaid’s comment that: “There were also no heavenly mansions, no pearly gates, no gold harps, gaudy thrones, winged churbs, or any of the heavenly claptrap you worry about thanks to churches. The truth is, I’d never been in a place less like a church, and can hardly say what a relief this was.” How has church and other Christians affected the way you think about heaven?

5. When the dinner-time prayers descended into a physical fight between Everett and Mama, who carried the most blame for the incident? (Consider Everett, Mama, Papa, and others.) Did you find this scene believable? Was Papa’s resolution, that the kids no longer had to go to church, a good one?

6. Consider the following quotation (p. 247): I wish I’d had the love, the wisdom, the empathy, or even just the raw curiosity to try and find out, back in the mid-sixties, why Mama would storm off the way she did. She always went to stay with her brother and his wife, outside Spokane. She always left in such terrible hurt and anger that it seemed she would never return. And she always came back, calmer but basically unchanged, after three or four days. I’ve learned enough, in the years since, to know that she was leading a life as intricate and dramatic, as painful, and as worthy of respect as my father’s. But this paragraph is revisionist. Mama’s absences were a relief to me, her returns a mild disappointment, and unlike Peter, I had no great curiosity about the motivations of either. I felt at times that she loved me. I also felt, almost constantly, that she disliked me. And I was satisfied to reciprocate. It damaged us. But that’s the way it was.
Do you agree and/or sympathize with Kincaid’s sentiments? What are Mama’s good points? Bad? Did you come to understand her religious fanaticism and the difficulties she had with the various family members? Does the revelation of her terrible childhood experiences justify her behavior? Why or why not? If she were your mother, can you imagine being able to forgive her?

7. What did you think about Everett’s proposal of praying that God would transfer some of his luck to Papa? Did this prayer have anything to do with what happened to Irwin? How did Everett’s understanding and practice of prayer evolve? In what areas would you be able to affirm his beliefs and struggles? In what areas would you disagree? How would you communicate this in a way that he could understand?

8. In the early part of the book, the different members of the family held widely divergent beliefs about God, religion, and prayer. How was faith evidenced in the lives of each of the characters? What did each believe in? How did their faith change over the course of the book?

9. What did you think of the church Mama belonged to? Did Elder Kim Joon change your opinion or feeling toward the church leadership?

10. In Duncan’s world, what seems to be the source and nature of evil? Is evil personal, social, or cultural? Do you agree with his assessment? Why or why not? Is there evidence of grace in The Brothers K? If so, where?

11. In the end, what is most highly valued in this family? What are the keys to success and happiness for each of the characters? Did their view of success and happiness change? If so, how and why? (Consider Papa’s baseball career, Mama’s religious practices as well as her role as a mother and business woman, Peter’s academic and spiritual pursuits, Everett’s politics, Grandawma and the twins’ science.)

12. Would you say this book is a redemptive one? Why or why not?


The Brothers K by David James Duncan (New York, NY: Bantam; 1996).