"A Book of Reasons"

Looking into the reclusive life of his late brother, a novelist produces an anti-memoir.


Dustin Beilke
September 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

John Vernon's reclusive brother, Paul, died of an aneurysm in 1996, and having no wife or children or intimate friends, he left everything he owned to Vernon, even though they were not close -- Paul was 16 years older and, in Vernon's words, "strange." Nothing, though, had prepared Vernon for what he found inside his brother's house when he went to examine what he had inherited. The place was, almost literally, a dump.

It was littered with human and animal feces and the corpses of pets, along with all the usual detritus of late-20th century life: engine parts, cigarette butts, Pepsi bottles, food cartons, pornographic magazines and junk mail. In some rooms the trash reached the ceiling and garbage covered every inch of floor space. The stench was overwhelming.

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Mixed with the filth were various items Vernon recognized: a framed photograph of their grandmother, the model airplanes and ham radio equipment that had cluttered Paul's boyhood bedroom, a letter Vernon had written him from graduate school. The scene precipitated powerful emotion and deep thought, as it would in anyone, and Vernon -- the author of four novels and numerous essays and articles -- responded as any writer in the late 1990s would: He wrote a memoir.

But it's a peculiar example of the genre. Instead of dwelling on the sadness, guilt and confusion that his discoveries gave rise to, he moves about between what he can remember of his brother, what he went through in managing Paul's "estate" and the history of the universe, in approximately equal parts. This approach turns "A Book of Reasons" into the negative of a memoir, a kind of anti-memoir: a book that concerns itself not with the author but with the rest of the world.

For example, when Vernon discovers that Paul's house doesn't have a working heating system, he consults his 80-year-old encyclopedia and a variety of other sources in order to tell us how central heating evolved. Other chapters cover the evolution of tools, the earliest study of the central nervous system, the history of embalming and interment and the science of human conception and gestation. Sprinkled among the science, history and history of science are small revelations about Paul and his life, as well as enough literary allusion, mythology, etiology and urban legend to satisfy any hungry mind.

While these excursions might be informative and enlightening to people who did not study the topics in college -- and even to those who did -- the best thing "A Book of Reasons" gives us is a glimpse into the workings of a writer's mind. When Vernon is nailing up a thermometer or digging cat shit out of his dead brother's kitchen sink, he is simultaneously searching for things to write about. Of course, since everyday events and objects and experiences are what our world consists of, more or less, they are the source of literary inspiration; here the lineage is simply a little bit more apparent. And "A Book of Reasons" is inspired work indeed.


Dustin Beilke

Dustin Beilke has written for the Nation, the Progressive and Newsday, among other publications. He lives in Madison, Wis.

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