This partly autobiographical collection of linked stories could, as the author notes at his web site, be considered a novel as much as a collection. There is a single first-person (unnamed) narrator throughout, a circumscribed cast of characters, a timeline of almost 30 years, and "individual stories [that speak] to each other and [gather] force as they go forward" (see interview at the author's web site). At the center of these reflections and of the narrator's life is his enigmatic, beautiful mother, "Our Mother of the Sighs and Heartaches . . . Our Mother of the Mixed Messages," "Our Mother whom I adored and whom, in adoring, I ran from, knowing it 'wrong' for a son to wish to be like his mother" (17). The book also delves significantly into the relationship between the narrator and his older brother, and to a lesser extent concerns the narrator's relationship with his father, who dies when the narrator is 11 years old. Interwoven throughout is the narrator's growing awareness and suppression of his own homosexuality.

All the stories are refracted through memory, back to when the narrator was nine years old, living with his brother, mother, and father in post-World War II Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, DC. The stories progress through a roaming young adulthood of lies and random sexual encounters; and move into adulthood, committed relationships, and accumulating personal losses. In addition to the mother, of almost equal importance is the narrator's ambivalent relationship to his brother, Davis, who is sometimes an ally and sometimes a competitor or antagonist. Initially contemptuous of the narrator's identification with his mother, Davis later leads a defiant, drug dependent, and openly homosexual life while the narrator himself remains closeted to his parents and to many others. The narrator depicts himself and his brother as Cain and Abel, only "I was Cain and Abel both, as was my brother" (158).

Particularly striking are "My Mother's Clothes: The School of Beauty and Shame," "The Diarist," and "My Brother in the Basement." In "My Mother's Clothes" McCann develops themes of the narrator's infatuation with his mother, his guilt about that, his uncomfortable relationship with his father, and renunciation -- of his friendship with another boy. "The Diarist" focuses on the narrator's difficult interaction with his father, who expects masculine behavior from him, and with brother Davis, who seems to have no trouble fitting into the role expected of him. "My Brother in the Basement" moves forward into young adulthood and the shocking outcome of Davis's life, and the narrator's retrospective and revisionist analysis of that time.


This is a beautiful and complex work by an author who is also a prize-winning poet. While the stories stand alone as worthy literature, the impact of reading the entire collection in sequence is perhaps more compelling and really like reading a fragmented contemporary novel. The book speaks poetically and powerfully to issues of identity and loss. There is more than plot and narrative: the narrator looks back on what he is narrating--questioning and reassessing what and how he is remembering.

There are strains of Ethan Canin's short story, Batorsag and Szerelem (see this database) in the relationship of the brothers; a comparison with John Edgar Wideman's memoir, Brothers and Keepers, and John Vernon's memoir, A Book of Reasons (annotated in this database) could also be useful.


Pantheon Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count