Stories of family trauma, parent-child relationships, and sibling relationships are not new in literature. Compelling examples go as far back as the Bible. Unfortunately, writing about family trauma has also often been negatively characterized as confessional, as if certain life experiences are either too embarrassing or otherwise unworthy for literary exploration. The Brothers Silver, the first novel from poet and essayist Marc Jampole, offers a panoramic view of the lives of Jules and Leon Silver, their divorced parents Ethel and Ed, their large extended family, and many friends, entering this fraught tradition. Jampole rejects any negative assessment concerning subject matter, and unflinchingly explores the origin and impact of childhood trauma in a manner not frequently observed in novels by men. The novel examines the different impact childhood trauma has on two young brothers, and the difficult and lifelong work necessary in order to survive, or not to survive, that trauma.
The Brothers Silver is written in twelve chapters, each with its own distinct voice and style. In line with the best tradition of literary novels, Jampole’s deep and intense interest in the possibilities inherent in the use of the English language is evident from the very first page. The first chapter, told in the voice of the protagonist Jules Silver as a child, is stunning. Written in verse laid out as prose on the page, Jampole employs extensive rhyme and rhythm to capture both voice and scene. The effect is poignant and cannily evocative of childhood. Here Jules relates an incident of childhood life in the kitchen:
“Inside, sleeves above my elbows, tie unclipped, I search the fridge and cabinets for something we can eat. Eggs to scramble, grated cheese, some onion dip, a box of Cream of Wheat. I talk of Mantle’s injuries to Lee, Howard at the plate replacing Yogi, how Whitey with a mighty curveball put a collar on Sherm Lollar, why I think the Reds will tank, why Matthews is as good as Ernie Banks, Cepeda, McCovey, other Giants. I speak to fill my brother’s silence.”
The hypnotic iambic pace filled with rhyme, “Lee” and “Yogi,” “collar” and “Lollar,” “tank” and “Banks,” along with the use of these same details to establish time, create an immersive reading experience. Home life, for the Silver boys, involves relentless suffering.
Childhood trauma, Jampole noted in an interview with me, is not like a disease that you cure, it’s a disability that you learn to live with.
To learn to live with it, the adult Jules takes a road trip that encompasses most of the last third of the book, recounted, again in verse, but this time in the adult voice, because The Brothers Silver is also a story of the baby boomer generation. It follows Jules and Leon as they cross the continent from East to West, North to South, reflecting on the personal and global possibilities of the turbulent 1960’s to the complacency at the turn of the 21st century.
Jules’s road trip, like Kerouac in reverse, is most compelling when it affords him the opportunity to meditate or interact with family members, friends, and people randomly encountered on the road. His trip slows down a bit for the reader, but speeds up again when the characters begin to feel less like cultural or political stereotypes and the narration moves away from the didactic. Throughout, however, the quality of the voice remains compelling:
“The tumbling sky shivers like my bleary body from the wind of speeding cars and trucks. Squinting drivers steer into a quivering solar ball that singes roads and signs, sears the fences, flames the crows and ducks. In my sight, glowing malls cross horizon’s edge and welkin squid- ink stains the spurge and sedge, leeches roofs and building cranes, dims the city structures into specks of light.”
What a delight for a reader who reads for writing, as is the multi-genre approach of the book. The changes in voice and style, from verse to dramatic monologue to dialogue and every place in between, permit Jampole to create a more complete perspective of character and situation. Dialogue can juggle complicated feelings. Soliloquy can constrain. Only in the dialogue of the third chapter does the language come off as unsuccessful. The characters in the chapter are less fully developed, and the use of local vernacular, while ambitious, feels forced.
Varying genre can also subconsciously mimic the broken psyche of an individual attempting to survive the impact of trauma. To restate Yeats, “Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.” Each time the voice or genre changes, the scene presents from a different vantage point. At the same time, it is difficult to take in the whole. Take this example, as the young Jules must try to absorb his father’s abandonment of the family:
“It won’t be bad. It won’t be bad.” My father’s answer to a question no one had. He speaks by phone from somewhere in New Jersey. Coursing in the background I hear a tiny nasal voice calling a horse race, and I imagine his hands counting cash, a Camel prancing at his mouth, blessing air with ash. “I’m living in a pretty tiny room south of Jersey City till I find a bigger place. …”
The rhythm emphasizes the haunting rhyme of “cash” and “ash.” The reassurance offered by the father is at odds with the words used, and further at odds with the situation.
There is no resolution to childhood trauma. There is no happy ending. But there is survival. One way to survive is as an outsider, the role Jules adopts throughout his life. In each of his relationships, particularly with his former girlfriend, Jules defines himself on the outside looking in. He observes, but, at least from his own perspective, does not act. This enables the adult Jules, by the standards of the outside world, to achieve a measure of success. He has walled off whatever hurt him and will not let it out. Does that self-imposed distance allow for his survival, or is it luck? Is there more to it? There are no answers to surviving trauma. The various voices and styles of writing in The Brothers Silver shape the puzzle of survival. The strategies of using verse, dramatic monologue, soliloquy, epistles, and dramatic dialogue further reflect the need to be able to see the world from a variety of perspectives if one is going to be able to survive. These, in turn, succeed in making the whole greater than its parts.
The Brothers Silver
by Marc Jampole
Owl Canyon Press
Published June 1st, 2021