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.]


This memoir is unusual in several respects. It is an unflinching, unromanticized account of a mentally ill family member of whom, in life and in death, one is ashamed (do not believe the misleading quote on the back cover that the book is "[a] heartwarming tale of brotherly love"). Also unusual is the approach that "takes a true story, recent and personal, and refers it to the past, to the surprising and irregular upheavals of history" (xii).

This intellectual perspective allows Vernon to grapple with the enigma that was his brother, to revisit the nature of their relationship, and to relate the story of one individual to much larger historic and cosmic issues. In doing so, the author provides his brother with the connections to society and to the universe that were so lacking while he was alive.

The story is also the author's story. As with all narrative, it is an attempt to make sense of experience, to provide the possibility, as Shoshana Felman writes, "of seeing again what in fact was never seen the first time . . . due to the inherent blinding nature of the occurrence" ("The Return of the Voice: Claude Lanzmann's Shoah" in Testimony, eds. Felman and Laub, Routledge, 1992, p. 255). Vernon's memoir bears witness, and hence takes responsibility (see Felman, p. 204); Vernon notes: " . . . as I've learned, the act of searching itself also becomes an act of taking responsibility" (xii).

In the end, the author has become painfully aware of his brother's suffering, even as he is repelled by his bizarre habits. Had Vernon not been so ashamed and repelled, it is implied, he might have taken steps to help Paul when help might still have been possible (if it were ever possible). Yet, considering our shaky understanding of mental illness, and the complexities of family interaction, is this perhaps expecting too much? The book generates many questions that bear discussion.


Houghton Mifflin

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