Ilka Scobie is a native New Yorker who teaches poetry in city public schools. She writes for London Artlyst, American Book Review and LiveMag. Her book “Any Island”was published by Spuyten Duyvil.
Review of The Brothers Silver by Marc Jampole (Owl Canyon Press, 2021)
“Unless we remember, we cannot understand” ‒ E. M. Forster
The nineteen-fifties brought a great postwar building boom to the New York City boroughs, with developments in Queens especially creating an affordable facsimile of suburban life for returning soldiers and their young families. In author Marc Jampole’s debut novel, The Brothers Silver, Ed, Ethel, and their two young sons, Jules and Leon, live in a middle-class Queens enclave, where divorce is still an uncommon embarrassment. With cinematic immediacy, we encounter the Silver family in the middle of their contentious split. Jules, the elder, “less favored son” and narrator, finds himself in the middle of his mother’s emotional breakdown and his father’s feckless half-abandonment. A younger brother, Leon, is emotionally needy and unpredictable. The reader is directly thrust into the midst of a severely fractured family. Before her first hospitalization, Ethel beats her baby son, Leon, which Ed sees as a possible explanation for his younger son’s wayward behavior. Through memory and dialogue that ring true, Jampole thrusts the reader into the maelstrom of a dysfunctional family, where no silver lining awaits the troubled Silver brothers.
It is up to the articulate protagonist, young Jules, to deal with his mother’s boss when she is too depressed to continue working. Ethel periodically breaks down and is filled with rancor for their father. The house is in disarray, meals are forgotten, and angry diatribes against their father are a daily curse. Both academically gifted boys are a great source of pride to their rakish father, who disappears and reappears with no schedule or provision of financial stability.
Manhattan beckons to the disenfranchised boys like a shining Mecca. Relatives like Uncle Jack introduce them to the wonders of city strolling, from the Village to Times Square. Manhattan appears and reappears throughout the book, as in “Manhattan, my paradise away from home.”
For Jules, life becomes a fragile balancing act, where he implores both parents to cease using him as an unwelcome sounding board. “Not a word about my mother,” he warns his father, Ed, echoing the same desperate sentiment in reverse to Ethel, his mother. Life with Mom includes her sporadic participation in Temple activities, specifically typing meeting notes for the Sisterhood and occasional manic bouts of cooking and cleaning. It also is the reality of her suicide attempts and frequent job losses, which put the family in economic free-fall. Even Jules’s Bar Mitzvah is tainted by his mother’s father, Pop Pop, an obnoxious and drunken grandfather. Poor Jules dreams of being Wally, the popular, polite, and perfect older brother in the current “ Leave It To Beaver” television series, with June, a stereotypically happy housewife and mother. Instead he is a kid with a dad who skips out to avoid child support and a mom who buys a car with his Bar Mitzvah money.
Jampole, a poet and lyrical writer, presents scenes like Jules watching the JFK funeral with his pill-popping mother that ring true and traumatic, as is the portrait of his volatile kid brother Leon (or Lee). Just a few years older than Leon, it is Jules, instead of his non-responsive parents, who has to visit with the school psychiatrist to shed some light on the misbehavior of his brilliant and misguided sibling. It is the accident-prone and irresponsible Leon who once discovered their mother with slit wrists. But when both boys find her after another suicide attempt by gas, a kindly neighbor helps them deal with her without police or hospital interference.
Unsurprisingly, early in the book Jules realizes, “The triad of my family’s eyes is filled with suffocating quicksand.” Though he desperately wants to save his family, he also recognizes, “I don’t have the skills or strength to help.” Always, Jules lives with his parents’ overwhelming favoritism towards his younger brother, whom the family views as a young Adonis. Meanwhile, the articulate Jules is steadfast in his self-involvement and woefully lacking in self-awareness.
The next chapter, written in the acerbic voice of the father, Ed Silver, shows him at this point trying to rescue his younger son, Leon, from a drug-filled and aimless life. “I used to talk to my boys,” he moans. Although he greatly prefers Lee, he describes his sons as “…real thoroughbreds. Jules was always a mudlark who likes a heavy track, but I thought Leon was a Triple Crown winner, a stud.” Ed is a man who describes a lover as “She’s running thirty, which is already over the hill for women.” We learn that Ed, also abandoned as a child, came from a family that suffered sexual abuse at the hands of the father, who disappeared to avoid legal consequences. The same man who raped his daughters and fled the consequences goes on to find success in Los Angeles. Ultimately, he uses connections to try to help Ed locate his runaway grandson, the much-favored Leon, who has joined the flock of would-be hippies in Haight Ashbury. Ed longs to start a business dynasty with Leon as a vital part of his dream. Meanwhile, Leon longs to get away from his family, basking in an uncommitted and downwardly mobile life.
Thus, we watch the two brothers carry their dysfunctional heritage into their adult life. It is this familial trajectory that shadows the estranged siblings’ adventures and misadventures, straight out of a Baby Boom time frame. Both share paralyzing frustrations and a lack of compassion, as they stumble and search for a semblance of adulthood in the Age of Aquarius.
Lee, after an interlude of fleeing his parents, moves down South with his loving Aunt Ginny and Uncle Emil, who is his mom’s brother. The aunt and uncle are among the book’s most likable characters, desperately trying to provide some stability for their troubled young nephew, even at the risk of his being a bad influence on their own two sons. Their loving, natural repartee reflects some of the rare untainted love depicted in the book.
After brief interludes as a welder, then a hospital orderly, Lee retreats to an uncommitted life in a teepee. “It’s a Thoreau kind of thing, I want to simplify my existence.” At this moment of time this might sound like madness, but it was a viable counterculture alternative in the last millennium, an “off-the-grid” choice.
Jampole’s lyrical voice resounds in chapters like “The Mirror Shatters.” Amid lamentations of despair, Jules details and categorizes his emotions through fractured pieces of his past. From digressions on moving schools seven times, to guilt about his mother’s suicide attempts, his memories are explored with rambling details or koan-like brevity. Guilt, Anger, Fear, Sadness, Shame, Panic, and Pride provide a framework for the narrator’s personal pain.
Another literary leap is the inclusion of a wistful and surprisingly articulate love letter from one of Leon’s former girlfriends, who declares, “… you’re perfect because of all the damage you suffered.”
Various chapters explore the jaded perspective of Jules, who, in one of them, visits a San Francisco Mikva, only to experience a flash of paternal compassion when he befriends the young kid who works at the dilapidated Jewish bathhouse. The fifteen-year-old boy, quoting his rabbi, discusses the esoteric power of Hashmal, the knowledge spoken of in the Kabbalah, while Jules confesses his guilt about getting stoned with the boy, who hastily assures him he also shares dope with his thirty-three-year-old mother.
Another chapter focuses on Lee, the self-destructive kid brother and “God of the here and now,” espousing the “deadbeat” life and his pride at the choice to tune in, turn on, and drop out: “A deadbeat lives in a here and now devoid of planning or looking back.” The critical evaluation of his brother continues caustically, as in “The so called here and now in which Jules lives is always full of the future.” Of his parents, Ed earns only contempt: “But he never intimidated me because I always had a secret weapon. He cared, and I don’t.” Did Lee really have sex with his mother, or is it an LSD-induced fantasy, a replay of warped ancestral history? After the supposed incident (or hallucination), Lee never again speaks directly to his mother.
These alternating voices flesh out the pain and confusion of a familial past filled with trauma. One voice I wanted to hear more of was that of the beleaguered mother, Ethel, whose disappointments and mental illness continued to shadow the lives of her sons. Even if Ethel is a victim of the rigid “feminine mystique” described by Betty Friedan, she must be more than the one-sided portrait of a desperate and depressed housewife. In the one chapter dedicated to Ethel, “Her Seventh Attempt at Rest,” she invokes a breathless diatribe of her failures, crushed self-esteem, and suicide attempts. I would have liked more illumination into the woman who was living in “the glorious agony” that taints her progeny.
These varied familial visions provide glimpses of a shared reality from equally articulate but wildly different philosophical outlooks. To survive, Jules wordlessly abandons his aimless California life, his passionate and volatile romance with El, a complicated older woman who supports him on her pension. Both sexual explorers, they spend months hitchhiking the country, bickering frequently, and staging emotional and jealous scenes. After dramatic incidents when Jules coaches a neighbor through childbirth, or confronts El for her extracurricular sexual escapades, the reader can only question “the whipsaw between tears and joy that I accepted for four years,” and why this bickering couple chooses to stay together. Then, abruptly, Jules flees, leaving his bohemian and aimless world behind. He decides to save his own life, thereby walking away from the restless existence into which he has fallen.
The less favored son decides to go “straight to straightsville,” ultimately transforming himself into the successful survivor, who lands a decent job and creates a family. “...it was my decision to throw away my old life, and I did it the right way this time, a complete excision of everything having to do with my past” is the justification that propels Jules into a career that expands financially and professionally. “I am a stowaway in my nuclear family of women... Always the outsider” on the “road more traveled.” Where other men might feel gratitude for a life change that encompasses stability and parenthood, Jules still clings to his identity as a cynical outsider, despite “a mortgaged house at the end of a cul-de-sac.”
Down south, Lee continues his marginal existence, with the added pleasures of love affairs, recreational drug use, learning guitar, and an active countercultural social community. “My brother believed that participating in society in any way made you part of the system of exploitation,” muses Jules. His death, from a fall from a dilapidated roof he was repairing, may have been a suicide. When Jules goes to the funeral, he arrives alone, as his lawyer wife was unaware he even had a brother. Jules views Lee’s aging hippie friends who attend the funeral as “jagged pieces of vitrified sand that somehow fit together, the unplanned life my brother led.” He is unable to see that Lee’s life may have been more than the sum of self-chosen poverty and transgression.
After reading his mother’s diary, found midst Leon’s papers, Jules decides to take a road trip out west, honoring the great American experience “to slip back in time.” “I started this trip to feel like a homeless Ulysses, roaming to be free, to fly free of home, or merely free of death, or at least the perception that one will die.” Through social media, he traces old friends across the country in an attempt to discover “what happened to those I left behind.” Is it merely boredom that propels the self-described “settled, upper-middle-class, middlebrow Jules” to embark on a search for the “wander years of my youth”? In his on-the-road odyssey, Jules shows no curiosity or sense of discovery. Moreover, why is it that he can find no common ground with or respect for his old friends?
At the same time, Jules seems to find no comfort in his new life as a corporate worker and family man. “For the past twenty five years I’ve lived in a waking sleep in which I speed blamelessly through my rebuilt life in suspended animation....” His search for community is a search for himself, the choices he has made, and an understanding of the anger that propelled “a jet of pure fury unsalted with guilt or regret.”
With “sharp fanged scorn I learned from my father,” Jules judges his old comrades harshly, with a disturbing lack of empathy. A former Rasta pot dealer has transmuted to a doctor specializing in pediatric psychiatry, leading Jules to view him as switching from pushing pot “to shilling pills, this time to kids.” Seeing his old friend, who lectures him on “preadolescent boys with ADD,” makes Jules “want to break him in two, rub his bloated face in pig shit....”
Another old friend, a former frat boy, now has become a jaded software success running for Congress. From meeting an overweight horseshoe hustler to a former artist, now a corporate art salesman, Jules declares, “I have nothing in common with these bumblers.” Why does he feel so superior to his peers? Why is he so bitterly critical of his old comrades?
One of Jules’s last encounters on the road is with Gigi, whom he knew as a nubile teenager once renting a room in his house. His description of Gigi years later is as cruel and petty as his conclusions about his old male friends. From noting that her “flawless cheekbones now look worn and cracked” to observing that “She’s packed on a little weight everywhere,” Jules’s cynical comments echo his father’s misogyny. Gigi, who works in a Tahoe casino, informs him that El has died from breast cancer. Though he claims not to have thought of El for years, Jules memorializes her death in these terms: “Now at sixty, the woman who ruined you and made you live beyond ruination.” Both parents, brother, and old lover are dead. The reader wants to shake Jules out of his self-indulgent despair. After all, a wife and daughter are waiting for him, although his description of his partner as “conventional and controlled” and “lacking vision to look beyond her own middle-class sensibilities” echoes his own misguided notions of superiority. His daughter is but a mere footnote in his musings.
Jules, after his road trip, shares childhood memories of his happiest times with his extended family, before the birth of his brother, in terms of beach time with his then-doting parents. Then there is a shift to his father’s gathered siblings, his brother’s birth, and, subsequently, his demotion from adored only child. Following that is the beginning of his mother’s unexplained and traumatic absences. Our final glimpses of Jules are those where he is soothed by nature ‒ from hilltop to rivers to Central Park. Comparing snippets of overheard conversation, “Well, I mean, like, so, anyway...” to the “meaningless chirp of birds” rings true to anyone who has eavesdropped on contemporary conversational inanities. A beautiful unknown birdwatcher produces “a momentary erotic frieze.” Cold air awakens Jules from his dream state. We leave our troubled anti-hero “not wondering if the journey upstream has ended or if I have stumbled upon another dream.”