Arts & Entertainment: March 14, 2000

Phoenix: A Brother’s Life” by J.D. Dolan

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

The memoir has become our most abused genre and, mercifully, seemed to have recently reached its high water mark with “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” Dave Eggers’ smart-alecky deconstruction.  

I had hoped I would not be reading any more book length personal gripes that had nothing to say about our world other than the obvious: life can be bizzare and cruel and people whine too much.

But then came J.D. Dolan’s memoir. This is non-fiction loaded with the insights and universal truths we expect from the best literature.  Dolan’s brave book is proof of how first rate writing can redeem almost anything.

Dolan grew up on the edge of Los Angeles in the “Leave it to Beaver” era.  His father was a Greyhound bus driver, his mother stayed home, his two sisters dated, and his older brother, John, owned a Corvette. The family was quietly, crazily, dysfunctional. Refusing to speak to another family member — for months, years even — appears to be the preferred Dolan family fight tactic.

J.D. idolized his brother John, as younger brothers are wont to do.  John taught J.D. to fish, to shoot a gun, to ride a motorcycle.  John gave J.D. his first gun, his first motorcycle, his first hero.  This is, at its heart, a simple story about two brothers that loved each other and then stopped speaking to each other for five years, and it has the breath-stealing power of a rifle shot to the chest.

J.D. and his brother were in their not-speaking phase when John was nearly fried to death by an explosion of steam at a power generating plant.  J.D. was, at that time, bumming around Paris, waiting for his first published story to come out in “The Mississippi Review.”  Prior to this, J.D worked as a rock and roll roadie, a driver, and a bartender, but his new life as a writer was about to begin. John’s life was, of course, about to end.

J.D. flies to Phoenix and meets up with his mother and his sisters at the hospital. The sisters have a hard time accepting that John is dying, but J.D. quickly recognizes the inevitable. What J.D. does have a hard time with is understanding how it came to this — how he is losing a brother he hasn’t spoke with in years and can not really  speak with now.

J.D. does not tell us exactly how or why the brothers became estranged.  He does not seem to understand it himself. There are hints that it had something to do with John’s disapproval of J.D.’s drug-addled rock and roll life, or maybe John’s dissatisfaction with his own mundane life. What’s clear is that something important was lost and that J.D. will never have the chance to get it back. 

Still, as the song says, where there’s something lost, there’s something gained, and that is what J.D. tries to find. And, in some small but significant ways, he succeeds.

One day, after J.D. cannot look at his brother’s “battlefield” of a body any longer, he leaves the hospital to do what he likes doing best, drive. “As I drove, I listened to the radio, I watched the heat waves rise from the asphalt.  I admired the nearby hills and smiled at tan women in halter tops.  And while my brother lay dying in a burn unit, I felt terribly, guiltily, hungrily alive.”

J.D. is the first to tell John he is going do die, though John may or may not be able to hear. During this final exchange, “It occurred to me that I wasn’t mad at my brother anymore, and I knew that in the end, when it mattered, he wasn’t mad at me.  And I knew that I loved him very much, and that he loved me.  And in this there was considerable grace.” 

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