With that understanding, and that as a shadowy thematic premise, I had my parallel narrative tracks. My protagonist was a vulcanologist studying the eruption at Krakatoa. His brother was the eruptive event in his own history that so complicated the nature of his curiosity. It only remained for me to make sure that the analogy was an analogy that broke down nearly as often as it proved useful; that it continually complicated itself and enlarged its implications.
And I was liberated in dramatic and aesthetic terms by reminding myself that fiction didn't necessarily become autobiography because some of its elements—even crucial elements—were autobiographical. I wasn't engaged in replication but in new construction. William Gass once in an essay compared memories to balloons into which the past has been breathed, which implies that fiction might be seen as the twisting that creates balloon animals of pleasing, or silly, or moving shapes.
And writing about just how agonized my brother had been, and how much I'd felt like I'd let him down, led me to other kinds of solace as well, as one kind of memory unsheathed another. Just as walking through this account has allowed me to peep around other corners, and to continue to reeducate myself.
Because it's not fair to say, as I did earlier, that my initial experiences of my brother were primarily as enigma or closed door. My earliest memory of him, in fact, is of the way, when I was very small and committed to thumb sucking, he'd catch sight of me doing so, and unsure of what to do with his excess of tenderness, he'd rush over to me and cup his hands around my fist, the one connected to the thumb in my mouth, so that we'd be nose to nose. I'd always shake him off with a faux irritation, but I knew how loving a gesture it was, and I cherished it for that reason.
And when I made those top-ten lists, and when he wasn't in his dark periods, we'd sit in his room and he'd tease me about how I could possibly have elevated the Dave Clark Five to a spot above the Kinks, or what I was thinking of, putting Herman's Hermits on the list at all. "Hey, it's your record," I would tease him back, and he'd shake his head ruefully in agreement, as if to wonder, the same way I wondered: Who knows why he did certain things sometimes. That first short story that dealt with my brother formed the anchor story for my first collection, and then reappeared in a volume of new and selected stories, and then inspired a third collection, which turned out to be about all sorts of brother issues, both wide-ranging and close to home. Has my brother read those stories? It's hard to say. I don't ask, and he doesn't volunteer the information. He's now living in my parents' condominium in Florida. I have, though, found copies of my books thumbed-through when I've visited him down there. As he's gotten older he seems to have shed those rage issues and found a certain peace with his situation—even if he hasn't gotten much more outgoing in social terms. We talk on the phone, not nearly as often as we should, but often enough to retain the intensities of our bond.
Delmore Schwartz has an understandably famous short story called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities," which features a young narrator who finds himself in a movie theater watching a silent film of his parents' courtship. The narrator in the act of watching is awakened to himself and to his own unhappiness, as he puts it. He stands, at the moment his father proposes marriage to his mother, and shouts at the screen: "Don't do it! It's not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous." But what's wonderful about Schwartz's story is how clear-eyed it is about its protagonist's shortcomings. It is, after all, called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." Those responsibilities we have to those in our lives that we love: If we're lucky, we rehearse them on paper. There's so much to overcome, both on the page and off. It's easy to think, "Where to begin?" But I take heart from an analogy of E.L. Doctorow's about the act of faith involved in writing fiction. He once remarked that writing a novel was like driving alone at night: You could only see as far as your headlights. But you could go the whole way like that.
This essay appears in Brothers: 26 Stories of Love and Rivalry (Jossey-Bass), published in May 2009.