I was intimidated by David James Duncan’s novel The Brothers K. It sat on my bookshelves for years, always on the “I’m going to read it someday” list. My copy is a thick paperback, almost 1 ½ inches wide, and I knew that with that width came lots and lots of pages (645, to be precise). Experience has taught me that I can’t read a book of that length in the short reading slots I have available in my regular life. And the title, The Brothers K, seemed to mean that in order to appreciate all the nuanced layers and allusions, I really must read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov first. But Russian novelists also intimidate me, so it was a double whammy of dread and regret every time I scanned the shelves for something to read, putting my finger lightly on that thick spine with the large blue K. Someday, I told myself, I’ll read this one.
That “someday” came just last month. First, thanks to BBC radio, I listened to The Brothers Karamazov in five one-hour programs. Secondly, my husband wanted to go swimming.
He especially wanted to go swimming at Bottomless Lakes State Park, a three hour drive from our home in Lubbock. We were going to make a quick trip, spending the night in Roswell. We’d been to Bottomless Lakes many times before, well worth the drive for a wonderful day of swimming in cold clear water. My husband can swim all the way across, while I go out a little way and then float on my back, wearing my sunglasses so I can look up at the bright blue sky. I envisioned a day of swimming and floating, interspersed with some serious lounging with a good book and some picnic food—bread, cheese and olives.
The lakes are sinkholes, formed when the roof over a subterranean river collapsed, so the water is always fresh, cold, and somewhat salty. There is a bathhouse and pavilion built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of those sturdy stone buildings that I so admire. The lakes are called “bottomless” because years ago cowboys tried to measure the depth with ropes dropped over the side of a boat, but the current kept the rope from ever reaching the bottom, amazing and confounding them.
The day before we left, I started in reading The Brothers K. I was hooked. Then, while at the lake, I had hours of reading time. I passed page 300, passed page 400. I swam, I got sunburned, I swept little striped bugs off my arms and legs when they distracted me from the world of the novel. I was still reading when we returned to Lubbock, and though I had to put the book down once because I couldn’t bear to read any more, I was so distraught over the characters’ plights and terrified for their safety, and then again the next night because I just couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer, I finished the book. I loved it.
I’m not going to describe The Brothers K in any great detail. I’m afraid I’ll say too much and perhaps spoil something for future readers. Read it yourself. Don’t be intimidated. You don’t even have to read The Brothers Karamazov first.
A bit about The Brothers K: This novel describes three decades of the life of the family Chance, beginning in the family living room in Camas, Washington, and coming to a close with the aftermath of the Vietnam War. There are brothers, four of them, and their young twin sisters. Their father supports his large family by working in the paper mill, their mother runs the household, but takes her strength from her Seventh-day Adventist church. Baseball, religion, family, set in the Pacific Northwest. My kind of book indeed.
Duncan says of the title: “In statistician’s lingo, a K is a strikeout–a personal failure. And the struggle to come to terms with personal and national failure is a huge part of the novel.” An Interview with David James Duncan, by Clark Munsell. The World & I, Oct. 1992.
Images: Book cover; Lea Lake, New Mexico; “Notes taken interviewing a drunk & stoned Vietnam vet for the VN scenes in BK” from Box 4, folder 19 of DJD Papers; Casey Award nomination for best book about baseball, from DJD Papers.
David James Duncan Papers at the Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library, Texas Tech University: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tturb/00153/trb-00153.html