Table of Contents | Archives | FAQ | e-Mail Us

After the Ashes
J.D. Dolan's Phoenix

by Charlie Onion

Many siblings grow apart in adulthood, but most of them do so amicably. Not J.D. Dolan and his brother John, though. Instead, John simply quit speaking to Dolan and everyone else in his family.

If J.D. Dolan had watched his older relatives with the awareness that his own siblings would resemble them in time, he might have been better prepared for the general collapse his family underwent when he got older. But children never think like that, do they? The world seems to belong to a different species, and the notion of becoming like them--whether physically or mentally--is unthinkable. So despite all the warnings Dolan documents in his short, emotionally devastating memoir, he was shocked when his own brother turned his back on him after a childhood passed in unreserved hero worshipping.

Dolan's brother, John, was eleven years older than he--the perfect span for a mentor--and he seemed to do everything with enviable style:

Phoenix: A Brother's Life
J.D. Dolan
Alfred A. Knopf
195 pp.
Amazon.com order now logo


He could lay his hands on a dead car engine in the morning and have it purring like a tomcat by midafternoon. When he walked out of our house, he could reach up and touch the top of the doorway, a high, faint smudge offering constant proof. He was lucky in everything--even his looks. He wore button-down shirts and alpaca sweaters, pegged slacks and suede boots. He had dark hair and a shy smile--my sisters' friends said in whispered, conspiratorial giggles that he looked like Ricky Nelson--and he smelled of Old Spice, or sometimes motor oil, or sometimes both. But most of all, my brother was lucky because he could go wherever he wanted, and he could go there in his car, a forest green 1950 Chevy two-door with Moon hubcaps and tuck-and-roll upholstery.


Because Dolan's father (a Greyhound bus driver) was older than most parents and emotionally distant (more on that in a moment), John served as a substitute father of sorts. Thus, it was John to whom Dolan turned when he needed advice or encouragement, and it was John who gave Dolan his first gun (a Remington .22 rifle) and his first motorcycle (a Yamaha 125 Enduro).

But as they grew older, the dynamics of the brothers' relationship changed. Dolan moved up in the music business (beginning as a roadie and ending up a tour manager for the likes of Cher--who, Dolan writes, was at that time "just a famous pop relic with a big Vegas production"). Brother John, in the meantime, moved down in the machine business. Once, when visiting an engine-rebuilding shop in which John had bought a half interest, Dolan noticed that


what impressed me most was my ability to weave through it without brushing against anything and getting grease on my designer jeans. In my brother's world, people bought new engines. In my world, people bought new cars.

Before leaving, I picked up one of my brother's business cards from the front desk and noticed that his name was spelled JOHN DOLEN. When I pointed out the misspelling, my brother nodded and let out a little snort, and told me his business partner had ordered the cards. Clearly, John was pissed off about the mistake, but I was amazed that he'd let it stand. I dealt with dozens of people every day--promoters, hotel managers, union bosses--and didn't hesitate to jump in the face of anybody who fucked up.

I knew my brother had been having some troubles with [his wife] Jeannie--they were separated--and I stared at his business card and told him he should drive down and visit me in Laguna Beach, get some sun, hang out, but what I was thinking was, Pathetic.


Many siblings grow apart in adulthood, but most of them do so amicably. Kids come along, and suddenly PTA meetings, sleepovers and birthday parties draw your world into a tight, narrowly focused circle. But that's not how Dolan and his brother grew apart. Instead, John simply quit speaking to Dolan and everyone else in his family. "If he spoke to anyone," Dolan writes, "it was to himself, and he spoke only of anger."

There was a family history for this sort of thing, as it turns out. Dolan's father didn't talk to his own brother for twenty years and his older sister for three years, and he refused to speak to his own oldest daughter for ten years. Inevitably, Dolan begins to wonder whether his brother "was keeping up our grim family tradition--silence as a form of punishment."

Five years of silence passes, Dolan tells us, and then something unbelievable happens: his brother is burned horrifically when a steam pipe bursts in the Southern California Edison Mohave Generating Station where he works. Dolan (who is about to have his first short story published) rushes from Paris to Phoenix, where his brother is hospitalized in a burn unit. Ninety percent of the brother's skin is gone, his kidneys are failing, and in time, the doctors say, they may need to amputate his fingers and maybe even his hands. As Dolan (and the doctors) realize, John's death is all but certain, but his sisters don't want to admit it.


They behaved like a cheerleading section shouting down Death--and I hated them for that. John was dying; death was the only thing he had left, but they wouldn't allow him to die with any dignity. Just then I hated them both. I hated their self-righteous spectacle, the loudness and shamelessness of their lies. They were lying to the one person in my life who'd never lied to me. But what I hated most was that their love for my brother was blinding and unbounded; they didn't give a good goddamn if they made a spectacle, and wouldn't consider John's nightmarish future, only what was in front of them: their big brother, whom they desperately wanted to live.

I wish I could've felt the same.


In the middle of the bickering and the guilt, Dolan is plagued by two abiding issues: why did his brother stop speaking to him, and how can he, at his brother's death bed, end their silence satisfactorily?


Dolan, who now teaches at Western Michigan University, is aware of how overdetermined his story would seem if it were fiction.


I couldn't have invented a story like this--a guy who's pissed off at the world for years, a guy who's burning up inside, fetches up in a burn unit in Phoenix of all places. The older brother doesn't talk, and the younger brother chooses words as his vocation. The older brother, the dying brother, is thirty-nine, and very soon the younger brother will be holding his first publication, the proof of his new life, the thirty-ninth issue of the Mississippi Review. I shook my head at the thought of Joanne's Thunderbird [his sister's car, which precipitated the father's silent treatment]--another name for a phoenix, which as everybody knows is a bird that rises from the ashes of a fire. Who would believe such coincidences? Who would believe such a story?


Who indeed?

Unlike a novelist pressed to manufacture motivation and explain the inexplicable, though, Dolan never fully understands why his brother stopped speaking to him, nor does he try to convince his readers otherwise. Readers who expect neat closure should probably stick to novels. Dolan doesn't pull back when it comes to acknowledging painful truths, and he isn't willing to fabricate false endings, even when it would make everyone (perhaps even some of his readers) happier. The result is a searing, unforgettable work that rises above the other entries in today's burgeoning memoirs market.




Amazon.com: Click here to find any book!


Bottom bar


 Table of Contents

Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 2000
riverrun enterprises, inc.