Brothers26 Stories of Love and Rivalry
John Wiley & SonsCopyright © 2009 Andrew Blauner
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-0-470-39129-7
Chapter One Benjamin Cheever and Fred Cheever
I don't see Fred all that often, because he lives in Denver and I live outside of Gotham. But whose fault is that? Since outside of Gotham is where our generation of Cheevers was raised. Conveniently, he was planning to visit, when I got this assignment to write an essay about brothers. He would sleep under my roof, eat my wife's cooking, and help celebrate my mother's nintieth birthday. I could see Fred's back swimming into the crosshairs. I figured we'd fight. He'd fly back to Denver. I'd get even.
If writers had a flag, it would be the one John Paul Jones fought under: a rattlesnake and the legend, "Don't tread on me."
But-and don't you hate having your expectations dashed?-we got along famously. He brought two gorgeous and immensely talented children, and a splendid wife. My boys were both home, and so we had the mingling of the cousins. I was certain he'd notice my immoderate coffee consumption and scorn me for it. Instead, we drank a gallon together every morning and then ran five miles. His wife, Mary, ran too. Each daughter came one day. Elizabeth, the eldest, had the effrontery to beat me in the final sprint. But then I'm a wonderful guy. Or did I already tell you that? In any case, we all enjoyed ourselves. And each other.
When they left, I missed them. I didn't have nearly enough vitriol to power the essay. So I phoned Fred and asked if he'd be willing to write half of it. "A sort of call and response," I said. "Sure," he said.
We tossed our essay back and forth. We danced a pavane. Then sending me that last version, he wrote, "I sucker-punch you at the bottom of page five in this version. You are welcome to call a foul and delete it."
I left it. Remember this when you come to the last line. I'd be interested to know what you think. If I'm a crybaby, making too much of the slights suffered during my childhood, then Fred, my younger brother, is right to point it out. And certainly our childhood was happier than I let on. But also much sadder.
We Cheevers have a tendency to get nasty with one another. Often we're kidding. Like about the crosshairs. (I don't actually own a high-powered rifle with a scope.) But also there is real animus. Partly it's because our accomplished father, John Cheever, won the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, the William Dean Howells Medal, which my mother has on display in the library of the house he owned and died in. Fame is a corrosive. Especially if it's not your fame. Although I'm sixty, many people still see me as John Cheever's child. I've given readings from my own book, and had women rush up to me afterwards to say, "I just love your father's writing." This might have been all right, if my father had adored me to the exclusion of others and admired my writing above the work of others. But he didn't and he didn't.
Fred will write in Italics, because he was born in Italy, and Italians are like that. Per presentare la bella figura.
For thirty years I have lived at least two full time zones away from the house in which I grew up. My brother lives a ten-minute drive away. I am a lawyer and, for a while now, a law professor. Our parents knew less about law than they did about Romanian car repair. My brother writes books, as did his parents before him.
I live in a city where everyone exercises all the time and people invest more money in spandex than in diamonds or books. My brother, Ben, lives on the very edge of the City of Mammon, where the unbridled, conspicuous consumption of everything scarce-from sea urchin bladders to platinum collar bars-is a civic duty. It's also a place where people actually buy hardcover books, even if only to set them on their coffee tables. My brother seems largely immune from the call of the material god. However, he does have shiny cars that talk to him ("go left, go right at the next ...") and handheld electronic gadgets that would have gotten him burned at the stake in 17th-century Europe.
My brother is a coward because he chose to spend his life with people to whom his parents meant something. My brother is brave because he chose to live with people who read books, some by his parents. I was brave because I went places where my father's name could do me no good. I am a coward because I seek out places where my father's books aren't often read.
We have a word "fratricide" (although not a distinct criminal offense). You don't do extra jail time just because the person you kill was your brother. It's not classified as a hate crime. According to Justice Department statistics, it is rare. You are much more likely to be killed by your parents or your children. You are many times more likely to kill your spouse. In some dark moments, there is something liberating in the idea of killing your siblings. It's like cutting the fishing line snagged on an underwater rock. Brothers don't kill each other more often because brothers leave.
Not all salmon return to their native stream to spawn. It's obvious once you think about it. If it were otherwise, all the salmon on the planet would be spawning in the first river in which salmon evolved. Salmon leave. What's interesting is that we don't want to believe salmon leave. We want eternal cycles. We want the salmon always to return to Redfish Lake. We want the swallows always to return to Capistrano. We want the cobbler's children to be cobblers in the same shop. We want Chelsea Clinton to be president.
My brother Fred has a talent for statistics: fratricide may be rare, but it has a long and distinguished history. Cain and Abel are the first brothers. Cain murders Abel. Which seems to have been forgotten. In Civil War epics they save it for the knock-out blow, after the nation torn asunder, after the 600,000 dead. "Brother fought against brother," they announce as if this were the rough equivalent of Oedipus and his foxy mom. As if it were something unnatural like-I don't know-a dog with a plastic bag cleaning up after his owner. Whereas I always wonder why you'd want to murder a man who wasn't your brother.
When people in my family talk about brothers and sisters, they usually talk about parents. There are reasons that this is so. It also appears to be so in every other family I know. Adult children are like islands in a coral atoll, anchored to the sea bed in their unchanging relationship to each other as consequence of another relationship with a once brooding volcanic island now sunk beneath the waves, or moved to Florida. I am sure there are families in which relationships forged among siblings evolve to the point that parents no longer matter. I have just never met any of those people.
For most people, it seems, a lifetime isn't long enough to stop talking about your parents. And, of course, when we talk about our parents, we talk about love.
And when we talk about love, we talk about need. My brother, Fred, wasn't born until I was eight, and so my earliest wishes were for the painful death of my older sister. And boy did I ever wish on a star for that happy eventuality. But when Fred did arrive, the little nipper came along nicely in my disregard.
We lived in Rome and I was in love with my mother. I didn't speak Italian and so I wasn't allowed outside alone on the streets. So I moped around inside the palazzo we'd rented, while my own mother took this naked stranger into bed with her. She breast-fed him. I saw it happening. Not the sort of image to excite brotherly love.
But maybe you all don't feel that way about your brothers. Maybe I need to put my life into context. Sometimes, of course, I remember my childhood as a splendid magical time. "Trailing clouds of glory," I came "from heaven that was my home." And sometimes childhood was splendid. Often not.
I didn't speak Italian either. At the time I lived in Italy, I didn't speak at all. I still don't speak Italian, although I am stuck with Federico. When asked (repeatedly) why they named me Federico, my parents would reply that there is no "K" in Italian and hence no Frederick. Okay, the Italians may not use K much, but they are a cosmopolitan people with the Germans just across the border. A perfunctory glance at any Italian keyboard (there are a number of versions) will reveal the presence of "K": so much for parental accuracy. My parents also told me they lost my birth certificate. I am still wondering about that.
I had two different childhoods. Three actually. The two I lived and the one I remember. The one I remember teeters back and forth between a very heaven and a very hell. In the heavenly childhood, Muzzy and Dazzy were always in love. Muzzy left a postcard under my pillow at night that had a penny scotch-taped to it and the words, "Good morning, good boy." That happened. I was five. I remember.
When awaken in the hellish childhood, my bed is wet. And while in first grade at the Todd Elementary School, I suffered from what, years later, a psychiatrist told me was called "a shy bladder." So we'd all be marched into the bathroom in the morning and everybody else would pee and I'd pretend to pee. Then I'd spend a couple of hours hopping around. Then I'd pee in my pants and spend a damp afternoon failing to learn how to read.
No one can rival my bed-wetting stories. Perhaps there really is something to this genetics stuff. Ben and I share certain other physical traits. When you see those murals of human development ("the ascent of man") with the monkey on the left and the "modern" guy on the right, we resemble the figure just right of center: slumped shoulders, exaggerated brows, hair in the wrong places. In some versions we get a club, which is a comfort. I can imagine potty training wasn't a high priority for Neanderthals. Do we drink so much coffee now to show that we can?
My brother and sister have always maintained that my parents loved me best. I have assumed this was their way of saying that they didn't get enough parental love. There were two possible culprits for this tragic state of affairs: my parents or me (the parental love hog).
The "love hog" hypothesis was easier for my siblings to deal with. If I-always inclined to overeat-had somehow sucked all the available parental love out of the family, then any deficiency in the amount of love they received could be blamed on me. The hypothesis is implausible, but since the only people who were interested (my brother and sister) had some reason in believing it, implausibility was no impediment.
I know people who may actually have been love hogs, or at least they show signs of having received an overabundance of parental love. They were convinced by the time they were thirteen that they deserved to be president, commissioner of baseball (why does everyone want to be commissioner of baseball?), and Mick Jagger's eventual replacement. When I tell these people that their academic labors are unlikely to lead to success, they know I cannot be telling the truth. They know that my recitation of their apparent limitations must be part of a monstrous conspiracy. Their mother and father knew best and told them they were perfect. For better or worse, I am not one of these people. Generally, I only trust people who criticize me.
Talk about unconditional parental love makes me edgy. I don't know if it's the shiny tricycle I never had or whether its existence seems a delusion.
Much as I hate to agree with my dastardly brother, I've always known that he wasn't the fabled love hog. Certainly Fred was brandished in front of me as an example of every sort of achievement, and my mother's house is festooned with pictures of himself and his children. While there seem to be no pictures of my own comely children.
Distance having made my mother's heart grow fonder.
It's much easier to have passionate feelings about people who aren't around. It takes much less time and involves fewer presents. People who aren't around rarely fail to meet expectations. They rarely dash your hopes. They have dramatically fewer opportunities to lie to you. Casablanca is really a movie about two people who discover (over just two days) that their legendary passion will not survive their being together. "We'll always have Paris, we lost it for a while (when you showed up)...."
My father took the need for distance a step further. He was always falling in love with strangers. Women and-more surprisingly-men. He liked novelty in his relationships. He was a storyteller, and he was fond of people, when he'd just started to make up the story about them, before they'd tangled the plot line with their petty concerns and multiple failings.
Blake Bailey prefaces his excellent new biography of my father, with this quote from William Maxwell, a friend and editor: "... it is too much to ask that people who spend very much time in a world of their own, as all writers do, should immediately and invariably grasp what is going on in this one."
The world's very sentimental these days about storytellers. Frank Capra was a great storyteller. But so was Adolph Hitler. Remember that his Reich was going to last 1,000 years? Story- tellers make us care about the world. They make the world dramatic. They distort it. Since my father was a storyteller, I was rarely an ordinary child. Sometimes I was a disaster, sometimes-although rarely-I was a success. It was always interesting.
I find myself in the middle of the thing that storytellers do. My brother, Ben, is, by any standard, an accomplished and successful person. During our short visit he took me to the farmers market where he had to judiciously divide his conversational time between the mayor, prominent international historians, and beautiful women. James Bond could not have done better. He actually has New York Marathon Medals hanging off every surface in his kitchen (he runs the thing every year): talk about festooned. He even owns a Vespa. He has two wonderful children and a magnificent and understanding wife. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern fiction and modern film. He has many published books to his name; he writes about truth and love. I, on the other hand, write about section 1604(i) of the National Forest Management Act of 1976. The image of himself as a love-starved urchin serves some purpose. I will have to leave it to you, our reader, to figure out what that purpose is.
When I was the favorite, my father would tell me how disappointed he was in my brother. "Disappointed" isn't the word he used. "Worried" is the word he used. "I'm worried about your brother," he'd confide. "He hasn't got any friends."
My brother had difficulty learning to ride a bicycle. And every year for my brother's birthday my father would buy him a bicycle. These were kept on the front porch. Year after year the new bicycles stacked up. "How can somebody who has never mastered a bicycle learn how to drive a car?" my father asked me as my brother came of age.
Fred learned how to drive a car. He has many friends. And now-at fifty-he rides his bicycle to his job as law professor in Denver. No training wheels. So my father's worries were unfounded. But I enjoyed sitting among the virgin bicycles on the porch of the family house with my father and fretting about my brother's failings and inadequacies. Which is fine, as far as it goes.
But my father used also to sit on the front porch of his house with my brother and fret about my inadequacies. Fred had a poor sense of balance. But I was stupid. Actually, they didn't call me stupid. What they called me was "a slow learner." I was "possessed of a mediocre intelligence." Fred was smart.
And they had a case against me. I spent two years in the second grade. I had a dreadful time learning how to read. I did finish high school, and even graduated college. I got jobs. I got promotions. I married a brilliant woman. But at my parents' house Bengie is still slow.
"When Bengie learns something he really learns it," they used to say. And also, "Bengie is so religious," which I guess was their way of explaining why it was I looked so long at everything before making up my mind. And for a slow learner, religion is just the ticket. While a scholar needs to master many books, a religious man reads only one.