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
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
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
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
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?
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
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