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Donald Antrim, Mad Genius?

Sometimes, the all-seeing, all-knowing Book Universe practically shoves things in your face. To deny this universe is folly. You may be able to hold out for awhile, but by the 3rd reference to Sir Walter Raleigh you hit in a week… you should probably do something about it.


About a month ago (this is how long it takes me, these days, to get my shit together and post on the Catapult) I listened to a New Yorker Fiction podcast where author Donald Antrim read Denis Johnson’s story Work & discussed it with Deborah Treisman, the mag’s fiction editor. (If you’ve never listened to this podcast, you really should. This is the format every time: a guest picks a story from the magazine’s archives, reads it aloud, then discusses it with Treisman. It’s fascinating and awesome.) Work has long been one of my favorite stories by Johnson – a strange, wandering tale of an idiotic, drunken narrator who sees the world, as Antrim quips, as if “through a big broken kaleidoscope.” Antrim reads the story so pitch-perfectly and analyzes it all so expertly, I came out rather refreshed and enlightened. Who is this Donald guy, anyway? Where’s he been hiding all this time? How did I never realize that Work might be a dream that Fuckhead the narrator is having? How did he get Deborah Treisman to say “fuckhead?”

Then, maybe a day after I heard this podcast, a friend – who has been gently pushing Antrim’s work on me for the last few years – told me that Antrim had been awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant. (As in, “See! See! What did I tell you?“) So, since the book universe was clearly shoving this Donald at me, I went and read his 1997 novel, The Hundred Brothers. Which was one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read.

As the title quite literally suggests, it is, in fact, a novel about 100 brothers – who, however improbably, all have the same father. On “a wretched, pewter-colored day,” the fellas gather together (or 99 of them do – George couldn’t make it) in the cavernous red library of the crumbling family mansion for drinks and a little dinner. The brothers seem to be all possible facets of the male psyche – a horrifying, hilarious prospect. Jonathan Franzen, in his introduction to the 2011 paperback (also available as a piece in the Guardian) sums the boys up neatly:

Football, fisticuffs, food fights, chess playing, bullying, gambling, hunting, drinking, pornography, pranking, philanthropy, power tools (“Doug, I need my belt-sander back,” Angus says in passing), homosexual cruising, anxieties about incontinence and penis size and middle-age weight gain: it’s all there.

The whole story takes place in this one room over the course of one night. The mansion is in pretty awful shape – leaking horribly, the ceiling caving in, snow blowing in through open windows, the books getting destroyed by pooling water. No one seems to notice. The bar is opened, drinks are drunk. Everyone sits down to dinner, eats, argues, gambles, drinks some more. (That pretty much covers the first two acts.) Doug, our first person narrator brother, seems to be the lynchpin to the whole clan at the start. Everyone seems to look to him for advice or some form of problem-solving (“I’m having a little problem with God.”) but, as the evening progresses, Doug’s intense anxiety, latent alcoholism, shoe fetishism, and pretty high level of plain ol’ insanity get chugging along. (“Kill the Corn King!“) It’s bad craziness, pretty much start to finish. 

Actually, underneath it all, there seems to be some pretty heavy stuff disguised as total farce in there. (It’s SO crazed much of the time that it’s easy to get swept up in the madness. Unless you’re a super-serious literary scholar like Jonathan Franzen.) Death, decay – we’re all heading that way at the end of the night, regardless of which of the 100 personalities we may identify with. Or perhaps the decaying mansion is symbolic of the decline of the patriarchy? Or…

Here’s the thing – since we’re all friends here: I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about with all that. I really liked this book, that’s all I know. It made me laugh, out loud, many times over. Maybe it’s my dark sensibilities, but I enjoyed being in the company of these 100 squirrelly, lunatic brothers. Yeah, yeah, there’s the “multiple facets of the male psyche” thing and the idea that we’re all decaying and headed toward death. But does it make absolute, resonating, life-changing sense to me? No. When Doug dresses up as “the Corn King” – as he is wont to do, once he gets a little liquor in him – and races around the house, chased by his murderous brothers, is he offering himself as a sacrifice so that life can spring from death? The hell if I know. 

The pain of existence is ours to bear. In order to bear it we must make sacrifices. We must offer ourselves up before God and our fellow man. That is the function of the Corn King.

Hmm… The fact that the above speech is delivered by Doug to a Doberman Pinscher named Gunner should tell you a lot about this book. (“You understand about death, don’t you?” Doug asks Gunner.) What does it all mean? My point here – and I DO have one – is that it doesn’t matter. Read The Hundred Brothers because you don’t want to read something with a slick plotline and a neat little bow tied around the ending. Read it because you want something weird and funny. Read it because you want to see how one hundred brothers with daddy issues would act around each other if they got liquored up and were crammed into one room. Read it because everything else you’ve been reading lately has been lackluster and lame. Read it because your book club would NEVER read it. Read it because you WANT to not understand all the finer points of a piece of writing at first pass. Read it because you want to have a thoughtful discussion with someone about what it all means. Or why it doesn’t mean anything. Embrace the crazy. At the open, there we were, innocent, fresh-faced readers, thinking good ol’ Doug was the only sane, perfectly reasonable brother and next thing you know, BAM! he’s naked and wearing nothing but an African mask. 

“It was time for me to dance. It would soon be a new day.”

Go get ’em, Corn King. I’ve got your back. 


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