Illustrations by Barry Moser | Courtesy of Algonquin Books
STORY MUST SUCCEED
By Win Bassett
Last fall, I drove to Parnassus Books in Nashville to return James Longenbach’s The Virtues of Poetry to a friend who works at the store. I can’t walk into a bookstore without buying a book—out of love for my craft, duty to support every soul along the writing-to-publishing chain, and my want to see local, independent stores thrive. (This one, owned by the writer Ann Patchett, is especially charming.) Indeed, I walked out of Parnassus with Barry Moser’s We Were Brothers. The cover depicts two young boys with mischievous faces, and I immediately recognized the style from Moser’s wonderful Divine Comedy illustrations. Besides, I have two younger brothers myself; “brothers on brothers” is perhaps the only subject in which I can comfortably call myself an expert.
I read the memoir—about the tensions in Moser’s relationship with his brother, Tommy, from boyhood to manhood—in one sitting. Then I contacted Moser, who lives in Massachusetts, to chat about the book. He could not have been more accommodating, but our plans to meet up in Nashville while he was on book tour were foiled due to mistaken travel plans and my duties as a teacher and coach. Here’s a sense of Moser’s jolly soul from one of our correspondences: “I must have had my head up my ass when I suggested 5:00 tonight to meet. My flight doesn’t leave here until 5:00. I must have conflated the two times. What a moron.”
We eventually caught up over email. What follows is an excerpt from that conversation. We Were Brothers is out now from Algonquin Books.
You are known primarily for your visual art. Why write a book on your brother?
My relationship with my brother has haunted me all my life. The only way I could get into it in a way that my kids and grandkids—the initial intended audience—could understand it was to write. And the “now” is not very now, actually. I began drafting the individual stories fifteen years ago. It has only been in the last five years that it began to take shape as a book. I’m not even sure that it’s finished. All I know is that I came to a spot where I (and my very fine editor, Kathy Pories) thought I could quit and have something that was whole and complete—or at least felt that way.
Like you, I’m a sucker for brother stories. I like them because they remind me of my two younger brothers, my best friends. You, however, preface a listing of your favorite brother stories with the notion that you and your brother “would be forever strangers.” You mention Legends of the Fall, The Straight Story, Cutting for Stone, and my favorite, A River Runs Through It. What draws you to these stories despite your hardened relationship with your brother?
Because our brotherhood was a difficult relationship and I so deeply wished that it had not been. When I see or read such stories, the experience takes me into a state of reverie—a place of wondering what might have been, what could have been. That always makes me sad, and I usually weep.
As Abraham Verghese writes, “No surgeon can heal the kind of wound that divides two brothers. Where silk and steel fail, story must succeed.” Did story succeed in helping you understand your relationship with Tommy?
Yes, I think it did. I just wish that my brother were alive to read the book and tell me if he felt that it did so for him, too. I have to believe that it would have. I have to believe this because we did reconcile before he died. He wrote me a letter in response to a savage letter I wrote to him telling him that I wanted him—from that day forward—to think of me as his dead brother. That letter set it all in motion: our reconciliation, and We Were Brothers.
You and your brother attended The Baylor School for Boys in Chattanooga when it existed as a military school, and you taught at The McCallie School, another independent boys’ school in Chattanooga. What lasts from those experiences?
There’s some good, some bad. The good part of the answer is that I honestly believe learning how to march in military formation at such an early age laid a firm (if unrecognized) foundation for my becoming a typographer and book designer—not so much as an illustrator or a visual artist, but in the strict and unrelenting dressing down of lines and lines of type, and the page after page of repetition. It’s very military, really: little lead soldiers all lined up to offer information or story to a reader.
As for “art,” Baylor did nothing. In fact, I was punished when I got caught drawing in class or study hall (usually naked women or airplanes—and don’t ask if there’s a connection). Art was sissy stuff, not a manly endeavor for young, Southern lords—not like algebra and football. But I persisted, I guess you could say.
I taught at McCallie—mechanical drawing and typing, never mind that I could not type (nor can I yet, at least not properly). My fifth and final year I was given a chance to teach the one art class on offer—in jacket and tie, nonetheless.
So what lasts? I think persistence. I was bullied at Baylor, intimidated, called stupid, belittled and all the rest, until, of course, I became a senior and one of the aggressors in that byzantine world. Nothing I can think of lasts from my McCallie years, except a few enduring friendships with former colleagues and students.
You went from Baylor to the University of Chattanooga and served as a preacher in the Methodist Church during your time as an undergraduate. Your time in the church seems like a formative experience for you with respect to your beliefs on race, religion, and humanity—beliefs at the core of the struggle between you and your brother. Yet, you devote few words in this book to your time as a preacher.
Actually, I went from Baylor to Auburn. I was there for a year and a half and then back home to school because my family could no longer afford for me to go to school away from home.
The reason there’s not much said about my days as a preacher boy is because those days had very little to do with my relationship with my brother, and it is that relationship that the memoir hinges upon. Maybe I’ll explore that world—also byzantine—in a subsequent memoir.
But I’ll answer your question anyway: it began in summer revivals. If you’re a boy at an all-boys school, you can meet girls at church and church-related activities. I got saved two or three times. It never stuck. Not until I had a near-death hunting experience (a bullet passed between my arm and chest without touching me) that made me wonder if my life had been spared to serve God. So I did what was required of me to get my preacher’s license in the Methodist Church. I was a fundamentalist from the very start. To me, the Bible was inerrant, infallible, and omniscient.
But then a couple of things happened that soured it all. A girl in my youth group got pregnant and the church turned its collective back on her and her boyfriend. The other thing was that I went to church with a black friend and was welcomed—I was even invited to offer the morning prayer. But if my friend had gone into my church, he could have been lynched for his “uppitiness.”
Neither of those things tallied with my reading of the gospels. So my zeal was tamped down and eventually I lost all respect for organized religions. I turned my back to them all.
But don’t think for a minute that I am an atheist. I have the same disrespect for them as I do fundamentalists because at root they share one pernicious quality: certainty. That said, I am not at all certain that I was wrong about God sparing my life to serve Him. I hope that God will remember me for my work.
My brothers and I—separated by a total of five years—never stopped fighting in our adolescent years. Even when I came home during my freshman year of college, my youngest brother put my shoulder through the wall in my parents’ kitchen. But we never thought about touching each other’s faces. Looking back now, if one of us had punched another in the face, I can’t imagine the fabric of our universe not splitting open like the fresh gash in one of our cheeks. You hit your brother once in the face, and you quote Andre Dubus III in writing about the occurrence, stating that you broke “through that invisible member around another’s face.” Yet, you seem as if you wished you had hit him at an earlier age. Do you still feel the same way?
Yes. Because as Mother so often told me, “If you would just fight back, if you’d just smack him in the face, he’d leave you alone.” I did not. And he did not. Mother was right. It took two decades for me to discover just how right she was.
You provide an epigraph from Andrew Hudgins’s The Joker: “Love is not love that can only love those already flawless. That kind of love requires no enlargement of the self: It requires no love.” Would encountering Hudgins’s words earlier in your life have softened your relationship with your brother?
Naw. I was far too stupid and insensitive at that time of my life to have understood what Andrew says, much less to have found any kind of softener in them. But, God, how I wish that were not the truth, the fact.
One of my favorite parts of your book occurs toward the end when you include letters to and from your brother. We get your brother’s own words. Tell me about your decision to include these letters instead of providing the reader with your narration.
Those three letters, one vicious (mine) and the two conciliatory letters that follow, seemed to me to be an appropriate resolution. It was Tommy’s letter to me that changed everything. He was thoughtful, generous, apologetic, forgiving, and—well—brotherly. He knew that at our age, we couldn’t be too far from a final goodbye. We had to find a way to let the chasm between us be bridged. Those letters were the bridge. He died seven years after that exchange.
You were in Nashville when you saw your brother for the last time. What has this city come to mean to you?
It’s where Tyson and Todd, my brother’s sons, live. It is where Ann Patchett lives, and she’s very dear to me. Both the Vanderbilt library and the Nashville Public Library have significant collections of my work. Most importantly, my new relationship with Tyson is blossoming. I wish that closeness to him had happened before the memoir was published. I talk with that young man, and he tells me such great stories about his daddy. I would have included a bunch of them had I known them. He’s a big lug of a guy. But, damn! He’s got heart. We cry together.
In a post for the New York Review of Books about Flannery O’Connor’s linoleum cuts, you write, “I wonder how much time she spent looking at the work of other artists, and, if she did, just how much of it rubbed off on her without her being bothered knowing how. Likely as not, she taught that chicken to walk backward without being bothered to know how either. It was her way.” What other artists do you look at, and have they rubbed off?
Obviously a lot rubbed off on me from the artists I studied with: George Cress, Leonard Baskin, Fred Becker, and Jack Coughlin. A young artist can’t help that. It’s the way they all learned, too. But the ones I look at, the ones I go out of my way to look at—Lord, I don’t even know where to start: Kathe Kollwitz, Joel-Peter Witkin, Balcomb Green, Edwin Dickinson. And of course the old guys like Dürer, Rembrandt, Jaques Callot, Charles Meryon, Rudolph Bresdin. Seriously, the list is far too long to continue. Let me just say that I am influenced by everything I see. Hell, I might see an ad for Stetson hats and be influenced to the point of starting a new image of my own. The sources of inspiration are myriad.
You once stated in an interview: “I have no idea where I am going ‘creatively.’ I hate that word anyway, it is so over-used it no longer has any meaning for me. The only thing that drives me is to do my next book better than the last one. Always trying to better my personal best.” You end this book thanking God for “the little bit of grace” of reconciling with your brother before he died. How can your next book be better than this one?
What a generous question. Thank you. First off, if there is one to come, it will have to be very different from We Were Brothers. Regarding the above, I am never sure that the next work will be better than its predecessor. Sometimes it is, but most of the time, it is not. But that does not stop me from trying. And failing. And trying again. So, I will most definitely be trying to write another—in fact, I am toying with two possibilities at this point and have written three or four chapters of one of them. The other is gestating.