by Chris Adrian
Published by Broadway
356 pages, 2001
My Brother's Keeper
Reviewed by Linda L. Richards
When his twin brother is killed in the Civil War, Gob's grief is vast and unstoppable. Gob can't comprehend a world without his twin, Tomo, in it. The only thing that brings him the smallest amount of solace is the thought that, somehow, he will bring his brother back.
The prospect of living a life without Tomo was no less impossible than the prospect of somehow turning him from a rotten horror to a warm living boy, and if fate had determined that he must do one or the other, he would much prefer to do the latter.
The boys were just 11 when Tomo was killed -- he'd run away to join the Union army as a bugler -- and Gob devotes all of his energy to retrieving his twin from the other side. He goes in search of the Urfeist, a magical man-shaped child-eating monster said to live near Gob's childhood home of Homer, Ohio.
Gob finds him and the Urfeist, it turns out, has much to teach: though it doesn't come without cost. The monster bites off Gob's finger and adds it to the "kilt of fingers," he wears around his waist. Over the next few years, he abuses the child, emotionally and physically, though this last is oblique. The reader does not see the Urfeist sodomize the child, but the implication is perhaps more disturbing than if it were an obvious thing. Wherever the Urfeist shows up in Gob's Grief there is an evil backtaste that practically wells up from the pages.
From this strange character, however, Gob learns much of what he feels he must to begin to build the machine that will end death forever. He is taught that a machine "is a combination of resistant bodies so arranged that by their means the mechanical forces of nature can be compelled to do work accompanied by certain determinate motions." Nonsense? Of course. But the suspense of waiting to see if the impossible machine Gob builds can possibly work is heavy throughout Gob's Grief.
There are other strange characters in Gob's Grief. Some entirely fictional, like the Urfeist, others -- surprisingly -- based on historic figures. Abraham Lincoln makes a couple of brief cameos, as do many well-known business leaders and politicians. The fictional twins, Gob and Tomo, are the sons of a historical figure: Victoria Woodhull, an early and eccentric feminist who campaigned for both the Presidency and the vote, traded on Wall Street and published a newspaper aimed at empowerment for women long before such a term existed.
American poet laureate Walt Whitman also has an important role in Gob's Grief. Emotionally wounded by the results of the war and the immense loss of life and blood, the great, gentle man views the aftermath of war from a passionate distance. Gob and Walt become fast friends and, if they are not lovers they are, in the cryptic words of Gob's Aunt Tennie, "two poles of a love magnet."
One part history, one part magic realism and one part pure emotion, Gob's Grief would be fascinating enough if author Chris Adrian had elected to tell it in the usual way: from beginning to end. But Adrian takes his rich blend of historic and fantastic material and blends it in a way that is nothing short of spellbinding. We open on Tomo, who has run off to join the army and watch as his short life runs out. The next chapter fast forwards a dozen or so years to the segment of the book most concerned with Walt Whitman, or rather, the portion of the tale that is told through Whitman's eyes; perhaps a quarter of the book in total. Then we segue briefly to young Gob, first opting to run off to war with his brother and then being torn apart by grief to the point where he runs away to find the Urfeist. This is followed by the story from the perspective of Will Fie, a student doctor Gob befriends while attending medical school in New York City. After he enlisted in the Union army Will was assigned to a well connected photographer who was photographing death at the front lines. Like most of the characters in Gob's Grief, Will was utterly changed by the events of the war. Later we see much of the same material from the viewpoint of Maci Trufant, the editor of Victoria Woodhull's newspaper who becomes Gob's wife.
Adrian's decision to allow his story to unfold, and then unfold again, in relation to characters rather than the chronological passage of time lends a somewhat eerie and surreal feeling to all of Gob's Grief. The reader gets a sense of the loss and confusion that accompanies the conclusion of this bitter conflict that cost America over 600,000 lives. The American Civil War was, as has often been pointed out, a conflict that pitted brother against brother. All of the key characters in Gob's Grief have been irrevocably changed by the loss -- in and out of war -- of at least one brother. Ironically -- or perhaps not so -- Adrian's dedication is a somewhat cryptic "For My Brother." The fraternal undercurrent runs deeply through the book.
And, of course, we get a sense of a story being told in a very real way. My reality of any situation is, of course, entirely different than yours. I may see things that you don't see. I might even see things that aren't there, which will make them no less real to me. Because, with the exception of Gob, each character's story is told more or less in its entirety before moving on to the next, the reader recollects the resulting layers through a dreamlike gauze: I remember that. It's an odd sensation and it seems nothing short of miraculous that Adrian has managed to pull this off so well in his first novel. Gob's Grief is richly twisted, darkly heroic and completely riveting. | February 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine. Her fourth novel, Death was the Other Woman, will be published early in 2008 by St. Martin's Minotaur.