The Brothers K.

The Brothers K.
by David James Duncan
1992 /
Rating – ?

This book feels dated but it’s still good in it’s own way – I would have loved it in my 20s,  it came out in my 40s.  I kept having the feeling I’d read it before but I don’t think so.  I did read the author’s The River Why and really liked that book so I’ve been wanting to read this since I heard about it (about 5 or 10 years ago).
In the days of the Vietnam war and the associated draft there were so many conflicts and families were broken in many ways.  That’s what the book is basically about – one family,  many breaks.

The Chance family is composed of a bunch of extremists – Dad is the ball-player,  over the hill with a broken thumb.  Mom is a devout Seventh Day Adventist.  The children  – oh, the children –

Everett – a very intelligent young man,  good ball player, but deeply opposed to the war in Vietnam – he makes a scene,  burns his draft card and goes to Canada.

Peter is brilliant, goes to Harvard, becomes involved with Eastern religions, goes to India.

Irwin follows his mother’s footsteps into the church and his father’s to the baseball field.  Ends up in Vietnam.

Kincaid is the youngest,  average in all ways – the ear of his brothers,  the narrator of the tale.

Two sisters,  twins,  Freddie and Bet –  Freddie follows the path of the intellect while Bet follows Mom into church.

Duncan is funny and relevant (or he was then) and the overall impact of  this satire is heartwarming.


I also wondered about the connection between Dostoevsky’s masterpiece and Duncan’s work.   I see the title and the epigraphs – who can avoid that?   My own conclusion is that there is there is a substantial connection between the stories beyond the fact that they’re both little treatises on God and religion (fate/Chance) with a heavy dose of morality involved and they are both basically about three brothers – (I know there were more siblings in the Duncan work but Kincaid was a narrator and one of the younger sisters was more or less representative of science while the other was a supporter of Mom’s view.)

Anyway – my cursory inspection reveals: (and there’s probably more than this because my ideas seemed to grow)

* The three main brothers:

Everett’s circumstance of being drafted is more or less like Dmitri’s when the latter is sentenced to jail and thinks of escape to America.  They both lived a kind of high-life as long as they didn’t get caught.  Very materialist or sensual and not interested in the religion of their mother/Russia.  These are both eldest sons.  Both characters reform and get their woman at the end. (And Everett’s son is named Myshkin ! – lol)

Peter is more like Ivan – also rejects the very controlling church of his mother/Russia.  They both pursue the truth through intellect (Harvard and Moscow educated) and value pacifism, abhor violence,  etc.  Ivan is greatly disturbed by suffering in the world – ends up insane.   Peter becomes disillusioned but in the end does manual labor.  These are both second sons.

Irwin,  the injured brother,  is more or less like Alyosha – naturally “good,”  a true believer in the old faith.   These two are both sent out into the world – Alyosha to his sordid family,  Irwin to Vietnam.  There may be some similarities between Irwin’s experiences with his unit in Vietnam and the monastery scene (Book 2)  in Dostoevsky’s book – or perhaps the scene with the schoolboy and the stones (Book 4, chapter 3) .   Both have important confrontations with death – Irwin in Vietnam,  Alyosha with the death of his superior.   For awhile Alyosha plans to marry Lise, a very ill girl who is saved by a miracle while Irwin marries Linda,  a born-again Adventist.   Irwin may be the “hero” of Duncan’s story because the denouement culminates around him and his issues.  Alyosha is, imo, definitely the hero of Dostoevsky’s work.

* Others:
Papa Chance is used up – washed out –  he takes no particular interest in the boys’ religious issues  – he’s also a heavy drinker and smoker like Fyodor.  A sinner in Mom’s eyes,  but actually they’re both deformed – Fyodor spiritually,  Papa Chance physically.

Kincaid is the principle narrator in Duncan’s book.   Dostoevsky is presumably the main narrator of The Brothers Karamazov.  Neither narrator is really active in the plots but they are both first person narrators who certainly make their presence known.

*  Etc.
The structure of The Brothers K. is fragmented and sometimes going back in time – as is Dostoevsky’s work (My Father’s History vs Book 3 chapters 1 & 2). The books are about the same length (depending on font, page set-up, etc.).  (lol)

Chapter 3 part 5  in TBK. is entitled “The Bland Inquisitor”   – Book 5 Chapter 5 in TBKaramazov is The Grand Inquisitor.

Bottom line I believe Duncan’s work is totally original,  the similarities to Dostoevsky’s novel are natural, and not meant to be either a guide to understanding either book.  Neither is Duncan’s book an expansion on Dostoevsky’s.   I think in looking at his idea for a book Duncan may have realized there were similarities to TBKaramzov and let them develop on their own.  –  Three boys with different views of religion and the Vietnam war – it’s a natural book by itself.  But those three points of view,  hedonist,  spiritual/pacifist and traditional-religious coincide with the views of Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha.   Who knows – Duncan may have read The Brothers Karamazov during the Vietnam war days and put the idea together then.

Oh well

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