Sunday, January 12, 2014

Oh, Brother! Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers

Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers is almost too much fun for one book: one hundred (or thereabouts) brothers get together for dinner in their family’s library and all sorts of fraternal and allegorical mayhem, some of which is seemingly ritualistic and sinister, ensues. All the brothers were sired by the same father and all were born on May 23 (hmm, Geminis, like me), though in different years. There are several sets of twins among them.

Antrim hands narration duties to Doug, who’s also the family genealogist, a man who says he’s into more than just family trees, meaning he’s working on “…the deep investigation into bloodline and blood’s congenital inheritances, particularly in connection with insane monarchs.” Doug is quick to reassure the reader, “I’m not crazy. But I do have the blood of an insane monarch running through my veins. We all do.”

That’s more than enough for me to file Doug in the “unreliable narrator” category, though it’s good of him to list what must be all the brothers (I didn’t count) in the book’s initial pages. A few: Barry, “the good doctor of medicine,” whose supplies Doug will steal; Sergio the “caustic graphomaniac;” and Spencer, “the spook with known ties to the State Department.” Things start to go terribly wrong when Maxwell, recently returned from collecting botanical specimens in Costa Rica, has medical difficulty, necessitating assistance from Barry the good doctor… only to be filmed by Spencer, who’s an annoyingly intrepid documentary filmmaker for whom nothing is private.

With so many dozens of brothers, there’s a broad spectrum of professions and fears… and the brothers do all sorts of odd and illicit things in the stacks of the family library after they’ve eaten their pork chops:

Elsewhere people came and went, played card games and chess, tended to one another’s injuries, chased the bats. These men’s lives seemed, for the moment, untouched by far. But I did not envy them. I felt the way humans must have felt in earlier times, at the dawn of our history, when the world was alive with primitive dangers and life depended for preservation on the graces and fancies of hateful gods.

Enter the Corn King, a sacrificial character Doug plays during each annual dinner because, damn it, sacrifice and abasement are, according to Doug (and probably millions of other people) the essence of family get-togethers. The brothers have always hurt each other and now they carry knives and hunt Doug down in the library, too, with Dobermans watching and bats circling. What more can I say? This is my kind of book about family gatherings, ties, and rituals. I’d have loved it even if there hadn’t been bats.

Up Next: Romain Slocombe’s Monsieur Le Commandant and Pedro Mairal’s The Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra, both of which I also enjoyed.

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