A Cabinet of Curiosities, Balm for a Mourner’s Grief

A Book of Reasons , by John Vernon. Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $23. Your brother, older than you by 15

A Book of Reasons , by John Vernon. Houghton Mifflin, 272 pages, $23.

Your brother, older than you by 15 years, has died. He was a recluse, one of those strange people who manage to live in the world yet not be of it, a man comfortable communicating with others only over his radio transmitter–no wife, no close connections, ill at ease even with you (and you with him). A few years ago he abandoned his derelict house in New Hampshire and moved in with your elderly mother–your father is in a nursing home. Now you have inherited everything–house, ham radio equipment, guilt. Why was your brother Paul’s life so unhappily barren while you enjoy your marriage, your fatherhood, your writing, your teaching?

Most of us, after grieving, would either set aside such questions forever or quietly find a way to come to terms with them. But John Vernon is a writer and a teacher, and so he has tried to grapple with them in this fascinating, maddening Book of Reasons –fascinating because the breadth of his interests and his passion for sharing them keep the reader following him willingly down obscure historical and scientific pathways; maddening because those pathways often seem conjured up not to further a mourner’s personal quest but rather for their own sake, out of intellectual curiosity.

One of the essential marks of a good teacher is an organized mind, and Mr. Vernon’s grasp of coherent structure is what makes this apparently rambling account possible to follow and enjoy. Each of the six sections of his book encompasses narrative–the author coping with the practical difficulties of cleaning out and disposing of the house he has inherited–as well as a theme suggested by the circumstances under which he is laboring.

In “Heat,” he drives to the local Wal-Mart to buy a cheap outdoor thermometer, in the irrational belief that it will provide a touch of ordinariness, of invitingness, to the devastated house he hopes to sell, a house with no front steps, defunct plumbing and heating, and the terrible smell–in the walls, the floor, the air–of decaying animal bodies and feces. But in the process of acquiring the thermometer and banging it onto an outside wall, he (and we) are off on a trail that takes us through his old Encyclopaedia Britannica (“I read about Ludwig’s stromuhr for measuring blood flow; about hatters who separated the finer fibers of furs by striking with a pin the string on a huge bow suspended above a worktable … I read about the English ‘Jury of Annoyance’ appointed by an act of 1754 to report on highway obstructions; about the Chorizontes, those ancients who believed that two different people wrote The Odyssey and The Iliad “) and then on to the history of the thermometer itself, via Descartes, Pascal, the death of the great god Pan (“as Plutarch tells the story”), Galileo and Robert Fludd (“also known as Robertus de Fluctibus”). All of this is interesting, all of it well digested and well told. It’s fun to be force-fed from such a cabinet of curiosities. But already there is a troubling disparity, even disagreement, between these elaborate explorations and the bare-bones tone of Mr. Vernon’s narrative: “The car honked again. I must have been Sunday driving. Past all the malls, I was still creeping along at 20 miles per hour on the two-lane highway.”

Back and forth the book proceeds, with personal history and historical/scientific data caroming back and forth off each other. In the section on tools (“‘We are tool-making animals,’ said Benjamin Franklin”) there are brilliant riffs on hammers and axes, on Cain and Abel. With what tool did the First Son slay the Second–a rock? a club? a spade? a sickle? a hoe? the jawbone of an ass? a sword? a branding iron? a mason’s hammer? the leg of a table (“rhymes with Abel”)? the jawbone of a camel? Mr. Vernon’s guess is a hammer, but that may be because he has just crushed his thumb with one, putting up temporary front steps so that the real estate agent can usher prospective buyers into the house. Certainly he has taken the point of the First Fratricide: He had not been his own brother’s keeper, and he imagines, chillingly, Paul’s return from the dead, “His muffled inarticulate groans, like those we make in dreams, say what the guilty party knows already: You killed me, your own brother, by not showing me affection. You thought you were better than me, didn’t you?”

Almost always when the book confronts feelings this way, the writing grows strong and affecting. Mr. Vernon is particularly moving about his mother, who expressed her fatalism this way: “There’s nothing I can do about it, so why have a conniption?” At Paul’s funeral, “My mother seemed weak when she finally stood, but gradually regained her command. Her spirit was like four solid tires that would never blow out and whose tread would never wear. She had the soul of a survivor–that is, she felt things deeply, then went on to something else.” Of course, this is what Mr. Vernon does, too: He edges up to whatever is disturbing him and, too honest to ignore or dismiss it, acknowledges it and goes on to something else–Robertus de Fluctibus or the Chorizontes. Because his learning is genuine and impassioned, he carries us with him, but the final effect is of a distancing. Paul’s hermetic and lonely life, the dreadful proof of it in his abandoned and defiled house, and the author’s sadness and guilt can only be confronted in intermittent glances; then Mr. Vernon is back in his Britannica , searching for reasons–and relief. Only in the final section of the book, “Origins,” do the two strands fully come together, in a beautifully imagined consideration, both human and scientific, of the sexual congress, pregnancy and birth that brought Paul into this world.

The counterpoint to all this is Mr. Vernon’s account of his wrestling with the house itself, getting it cleaned up and on the market, dealing with the locals, with whom he has very little in common (this is all standard urban intellectual versus shrewd redneck material, yet with the heavy weight of death and despair behind it). The most dramatic distancing the author does, and who can blame him, is his exhausted late-night drive–it’s really a flight, a rout–away from Paul’s wretched house and life and back to home and family.

It took a brave effort to write this book, and reading it is both a pleasure and an education. The pleasure is that of being exposed to a real intelligence. The education is that of being exposed to a real teacher. Mr. Vernon’s impulse to teach is manifested everywhere–beginning with the author interview that accompanied the galley proofs reviewers were given to read: “Q. You say you wanted to write a history of ordinary things. But your brother doesn’t sound at all ordinary. A. That’s exactly the point. That’s the very counterintuitive line of thinking that helped the book to jell.” The author is teaching his own book! Throughout his Book of Reasons , he quotes other writers the way one does in a term paper: “as Mary Douglas says”; “As Paul West … puts it”; “In a recent book, Lennard Davis has shown”; “as the feminist philosopher Judith Butler says”; and, in a reference within a reference, “says an English journalist quoted by Annie Dillard.” His sources are broadly and well chosen–Nabokov, Braudel, Whitman, Freud, Heidegger, Stendhal, Thoreau, Proust; one after another they chime in. Even as, masked and gloved, Mr. Vernon is bagging the desiccated corpses of pets Paul abandoned when he abandoned his house, “[a] poem by Philip Levine began to haunt me.” This is a teacher at work, teaching not only his own text but his brother’s life and his own.

It is to Mr. Vernon’s credit that his sorrow and anger are allowed to break through the testimony of his literary backup team. But given all the real estate talk, I would happily have sacrificed Mr. Levine’s poem for the answer to the obvious question: Just how much did Paul’s place finally sell for?

A Cabinet of Curiosities, Balm for a Mourner’s Grief