Years ago, I heard someone say: "On the subject of one's brother, one does not equivocate," and I remember admiring the gruff authority of the sentiment, thinking "How true!" as we used to write in the margins of books back in college.
But as time has gone on, and certainly after reading "Brothers," George Howe Colt's most recent work of nonfiction, the ironclad simplicity of such a statement seems not just reductive but delusional. If the relationship between brothers is so simple, how did it get to be — after creation and the fall — plot No. 3 in the Bible? And more germane, how was it that Colt was able to mine the topic to the tune of 448 mesmerizing pages?
"Brothers" is both a celebration of the enduring bond between brothers and a dissection of how powerful, even disabling, it can be.
In his third book, the author has followed his usual strategy of identifying a big subject (suicide in "November of the Soul" and the lure of private property in "The Big House") and then approaching the topic from an almost dizzying range of perspectives, alternating personal reflection with exhaustive research.
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Colt self-identifies as the middle child in a family of four boys. Harry came first, then George 20 months later, Ned two years and one day later, and five years later, Mark, the final brother, who was treated the way the last child often was in families of that era, as an amiable interloper. Indeed, Colt tells us in one of the many random gems that glitter in these pages, that in ancient Japan, "younger siblings were known as 'cold rice,' a reference to the tradition of feeding them leftovers after the firstborn had eaten his fill."
In many regards, George Colt experienced a comfortable 1950s childhood in an intact home. All of the boys assumed their roles: Mark the hero, George the seeming good boy, Ned the daredevil and Mark the mascot. Their mother, known as "artistic," wore homemade muumuus when she and Colt's father went out to dinner parties on Friday nights, sang beautifully, made Christmas ornaments out of balsa wood, played the accordion and taught guitar. "Dad," writes Colt, "was like our friends' fathers, only handsomer, funnier, and more athletic. His arrival home from work was the big event of our day."
Colt worshipped his older brother (to the point of wanting not just to be with him, but to be him) and barely tolerated Ned. In public George aimed to be known for his valor and his good conduct: "My children make gagging sounds when I tell them the story of how one day in kindergarten, after the teacher stepped out of the classroom for a moment, admonishing us to 'be good,' I whispered to the other children, without a scintilla of irony, 'Let's be good as gold.' (It is a testament to 1950s conformity that my classmates didn't immediately stab me to death with their freshly sharpened Eberhard Faber #2 pencils.)"
Please take a minute and reread those marvelous sentences. Colt's writing style appears at first as innocently old-fashioned as his name and those of this brothers. He is not afraid of words for their own sake, "scintilla" instead of the more obvious "touch," nor is he afraid of employing a measured stately cadence as his prose unfolds. Indeed, he specializes in sentences that take their time, sentences that stretch and purr but that often end in an unanticipated pounce: the word "gold" in italics, the sudden appearance of pencils that have been weaponized. Colt has earned his living as a journalist, but the early ambition to be a poet is a genial ghost, haunting his writing enterprise.
As if to prove the well-known bromide about the middle child's vaunted eagerness to please and general acceptance of being second banana, Colt alternates tales of the Colt boys as children with portraits of famous brothers throughout history who illustrate a major theme in the fraternal dynamic: the Booths (good brother, bad brother), the Kelloggs (brother against brother), the van Goghs (brother's keeper), the Marx Brothers (Brothers, Inc.) and John and Henry David Thoreau (the lost brother). It is as if he feels he has to share the limelight.
The detailed considerations (perhaps at times too detailed) of well-known brothers and cameo references to many others, famous and not so, help Colt in his quest to explain the mystery of how siblings can be so different from one another:
"A growing amount of research suggests that siblings may be influenced most strongly by the things they don't share: birth order, age, friends, teachers, and the vagaries of chance. And they don't even really share the things they appear to have in common — if not identical genes, then seemingly identical parents, homes and often schools — because each of them perceives those things differently. Psychologists say that the experience of each child within a family is so distinct that each grows up in his own unique 'micro-environment.' In effect, each sibling grows up in a different family."
Colt cites a psychological theory called "deidentification" in which siblings of the "same gender, close in age, or both" shape their personalities in reaction to the others, seeking ways to create one's own uniqueness, thus creating even more differences.
No childhood is perfect, and no adolescence is trouble-free, and "Brothers" shows how even in the Eden of prosperous 1950s America fissures occur: The innocent Saturday morning jaunts with his dad ("the dump, the Esso station, the paper store") disguised their true purpose, a visit to the package store for a bag he would fill with a "frosted bottle of Gilbey's gin and several cartons of Kents."
Perhaps it was the price of constant moves as the Colt patriarch advanced the corporate ladder (moves that took the family to Pittsburgh; El Paso, Texas; Philadelphia; Dedham, Mass.; Darien, Conn., and back to Dedham) in combination with the simple human truth that even happy families are sometimes unhappy in their own way.
Colt's mom kept trying: drinking Metrecal to keep her figure in shape, hosting dinners for "people from the office." But at some point the center stopped holding. During some of those years, Colt admits, "it seemed the only intimacy we shared was when, figuratively and sometimes literally, we had our hands around each other's throats." Dad's drinking got worse, Mom almost lost her relationship with Ned over a cruel disciplinary technique, Harry decided to move as far away as he could, and Mark was, well, cold rice. In college George could not wait to audition his inner bad boy, and for years turned to drink and to dilly-dallying (equally unable to commit words to paper or himself to his girlfriends). Mark became a compulsive gambler.
Late in life, this good-enough family did the bravest thing they could do: They went into therapy and entered what Yeats calls the dark abyss of the soul, owning up to fault lines and frailties.
Colt offers a litany of brothers who have worked together: "They have ruled kingdoms (Charlemagne and Carloman); owned department stores (the Strauses); manufactured soap (the Levers); made wine (the Gallos); operated circuses (the Ringlings)." In late middle age the boys have morphed into men, and as men they have mushed together, the "only witnesses to one another's rapidly vanishing pasts," looking more and more alike and speaking the same secret code, causing a cousin who played tennis with all the brothers to comment, "I think I'm beginning to understand your language."
"It is," says Colt, "a language in which only four people are fluent."
Not any longer, thanks to this ambitious re-creation of the lost Atlantis of the Colt boys' childhood.
Madeleine Blais is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former reporter for the Miami Herald who teaches journalism at the University of Massachusetts.