John Vernon

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A Book of Reasons

Vernon, John

Last Updated: Jan-20-2010
Annotated by:
Aull, Felice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Memoir


In his dedication to the book, the author addresses his sons: "The secret to life? Clean your room." The meaning of this becomes clear as Vernon traces the story of his brother, Paul, with whose death the book begins. Paul was 15 years older than the author and had been only a shadowy presence in his life. When Paul died, John Vernon had to exercise his duties as executor of Paul's "estate," an estate that turned out to be a festering, stinking nightmare of a house.

The house was filled with 20 years worth of trash that represented 20 years of Paul's life as a recluse. This memoir is an attempt to imagine Paul's life and to understand the reasons for the course it took. It is also an attempt to "bear painful news" and to reflect on his own reactions to what he discovers and to Paul's death.

In order to do this, Vernon calls on history, interweaving his memories and what was revealed of Paul's life after his death with discussions of the beliefs and discoveries of past eras. Finding himself nailing a thermometer to the outside of Paul's house, the author describes the development of thermometers, and the nature of heat ("Heat"). What, he asks, is meant by "normal" atmospheric pressure? How abnormal was his brother? After all, he bought nursing-home insurance a year before he died. And how normal is he, John Vernon, affixing a thermometer to this wreckage?

As he builds a primitive set of steps to the house, the author explores the history of tool making and speculates about what distinguishes humans from animals; did Cain murder Abel with a hammer, and is he, John Vernon, his brother's keeper? ("Tools") Similar expositions and speculations interdigitate in subsequent sections entitled "Body," "Corpse," "House," "Origins." [At the end of the book, there is a bibliography of references for each section.]

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