Brother's Keeper

You can hear it in their voices, the difference between the brothers.

Andre Dubus III's voice is deep and booming and declamatory, the voice of the actor he once was. His eyes deep — set, his body weathered, at 44 he looks like he's spent years in the mountains, or the desert, the elements wearing him down to something elemental himself. His voice alone is enough to command your attention, but you're completely at his mercy when he starts telling stories from his many lives — — as a bartender, a bouncer, a halfway — house counselor, a carpenter, a bounty hunter, a landscaper, a boxer, a short — order cook, and now, after years of struggle, a writer like his brilliant, accursed late father, for whom he was named. His most recent novel, House of Sand and Fog, was written in a graveyard, and it was published in 1999, just two days before his father's sudden death. A finalist for the National Book Award, the novel has now sold more than 2 million copies worldwide, a figure probably 10 times the total of all 11 of his father's books combined. The big Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley is due out on December 26.

But the voice. Right now, Andre's talking about that time he beat up a couple of guys — — cokeheads, he was pretty sure — — in the Miami International Airport while he was waiting for a flight to Key West, where he was planning to blow a good portion of the $4,000 advance for his first collection of stories on a weekend with his mother and sisters. The cokeheads had shoved a woman, cursed her, and left her sobbing. But Andre admits, “I also wanted the release, the hurt.” In seconds he was on the bigger one, a 200 — pound whale who had no idea what he was in for. “He took a swing at me, and I ducked it, and I gave him a straight right.” Andre's in a boxer's crouch, demonstrating. He drives a jab to the guy's face, a blow with his whole body — — his whole lifetime — — behind it. “Then I give him another one,” Andre exclaims. “Boom!” The fist flies once more. Right, left, right, left, right. Like a killer. There's more: that guy going down like a corpse, Andre racing after the other one, the cops coming, Andre knowing from long experience (he was arrested five times before age 18) to quickly go all calm, polite, and respectful. The short of it is, the cokehead went off on a gurney and Andre made his plane, speckled with still — wet blood.

His brother Jeb's voice comes from someplace else altogether. He's only fourteen months younger, but his voice is higher, softer, more tentative, each word a plea for understanding, for the connection that for so long eluded him. Jeb's the same height as Andre, a shade under six feet, but he's all softness and sensitivity and kindness. His mother calls him “cherubic,” a word only a mother would use. If Andre has a name to be reckoned with by all parties, not least of them the bearer, Jeb is, as he says himself, just Jeb. Like his brother, he has lived several lives by now; unlike his brother, he's died several deaths. After a difficult and introverted adolescence, he's got his stuff together now. He's got a wife, three kids, a job, a little money. He's building a nonprofit arts center in Amesbury. If Andre's favorite word is “fuckin',” as in “This is all so fuckin' heavy, I can hardly fuckin' breathe,” Jeb's is “love,” as in “I came to love love.”

Deep inside the difference, there's a sameness to these two, Andre and Jeb, a sameness so hard to see you think you must be imagining it. That's what draws them together as brothers, just as it draws all brothers together, and as it draws everyone to brothers. Everyone else in the world may be separate, individual, but brothers always remain somehow together. They're conjoined twins, inseparably joined at the heart or the brain or both, no matter how far apart life might pull them.

And so with Jeb. He's no writer, no fighter. He's an artist, a painter, and he taught himself classical guitar, partly “from hearing it on the fuckin' record player in his bedroom,” Andre adds admiringly. He is an architect, too. And, like Andre, he is a carpenter.

It's the carpentry that's brought the brothers together now, here, to a construction site deep in the woods of Newbury. They're building a house for Andre, his wife, and three children, and — — since Andre is like this — — for his in — laws, too. It's a house that has been paid for by the vast, improbable success of Andre's House of Sand and Fog, a gripping novel that, by a quirk, is itself about the search to put down stakes that is the American dream. This house, here, is Andre's dream. At 44, he's been a renter his entire life. Andre III has paid his brother to design it for him and to help him build it. If you think it bugs Jeb to be his brother's hired hand, you don't know him. You can see the pride, the devotion, in the plans, so lovingly drawn in pencil, that Andre unscrolls. It will be a big, grand, wonderful house, three and a half stories high, with a dining room that has a 24 — foot cathedral ceiling. It will have a dance studio for Andre's wife, a movie room for the kids, a stone fireplace, expansive views into the woods from the wraparound porch. “Isn't this just fuckin' great?” Andre asks, his face alight, spreading out his arms.

The brothers are out here dawn to dusk just about every day, with some carpenter friends who, like the brothers themselves, aren't just carpenters. One designs movie sets; another has a Ph.D. in psychology. “I wanted all this deep, masculine, nurturing energy going into my house,” Andre says. The brothers are building the brotherhood.

Psychologists have come late to studying siblings, except in the most idle way. According to Freud, the key family relationship didn't run sideways between siblings, but vertically between child and parent, as the child acted out some version of the universal father — killing, mother — fucking Oedipal drama. But in the last couple of decades, academics have started to look more carefully at sibs. Increasingly, they have come to an unexpected conclusion: that siblings have about as much to do with each other as you, dear reader, and I. The reason isn't that hard to figure: The family is a constantly evolving entity changed all the more by each successive child. For the first one, the parents might still be struggling to establish their marriage, plaguing child number one with a permanent case of insecurity; later on, the parents could be in clover, making child number two feel like a movie star. Or the reverse.

And yet, for all the rivalry, the estrangement, the differences, there is something that always brings brothers back. Maybe it's just because they're always there. From birth to death, no one shares so much of our lifetimes as our siblings do. Or maybe it's because brotherhood involves a deeper and more complicated emotion than anything a psychologist can track — — a pull of blood. In their phone calls and holiday greetings, sisters gab about their love for each other. Brothers greet each other with a handshake, or maybe a hug, feeling for the muscle behind the other's grip. That's the bond right there, in the mute physicality of it. The brotherhood. And it is here in this house that is slowly rising up, story by story, from the earth.

Andre Dubus iii is not the oldest in his family. He has a sister, Suzanne, born a year before. But he is the first son, he bears his father's name, and he is the one, at least in his own estimation, who bore the brunt of his father's separation from the family in the fall of 1968, when young Andre — — “Little Andre” as he was called, poor bastard — — was just nine. Suzanne, curiously, scarcely remembers it, but, to Andre, it might have happened yesterday. “It was November,” he recalls. “A Sunday morning. Dad's got this little shitbox car out in the driveway, and he's finished packing it. My mother is wailing in the house, and we're all following him out. The girls were still in their pajamas, and my little sister, Nicole, is crying, 'Daddy, don't go!' which just kills me, and he just drives away.”

The sight of that departure, still so fresh, brings tears to Andre's eyes. “I didn't know I still had this, this anger,” he says, wiping. Life hadn't been easy before; now, it became really hard. The Dubuses had always been poor, living on the father's meager income as a creative writing instructor at tiny Bradford College. Now that paycheck had to cover two households, and it didn't. The grinding poverty wasn't nearly so oppressive as the helplessness. Haverhill was not a gentle place, especially not to a family like the Dubuses that was constantly on the move in search of cheaper rent. Young as he was, Andre did his best to bring some order to the household, mowing the lawn, cleaning the basement. But his life turned one day when an off — duty military policeman smacked his little brother around just for the hell of it, and there wasn't a thing Andre could do. Andre ran back to his house to look at himself in the bathroom mirror, and hated the pathetic little wimp staring back at him.

He started working out, lifting weights, pounding a body bag, and doing sit — ups like a crazy person. Three thousand in a row. Took him four hours, and by the time he was done, his back was dripping blood where it was rubbed raw by the floor. He learned to box. He had fast hands, which surprised him. He could stop taking the shit and start giving it out. Some of his fights were comic — book heroism, defending girls and weaklings. “It was almost a joke,” he says. “I could have put a cape and mask on.” But he was really defending his family. Most particularly, he was defending Jeb.

At a bar one memorable night, a local hothead — — let's call him Jimmy — — teased Jeb about the pair of slippers he was wearing in one of those fits of obliviousness that came over him in those years. Jimmy was a good size, about 6 — 1, and Jeb wasn't exactly built. Still, Jeb didn't see much choice but to step outside with Jimmy. Probably, he figured it would only serve him right to get pummeled.

The bar was one flight up, and, as the two of them were going downstairs, Jimmy gave Jeb a kick in the back that sent him tumbling. Andre was there, as he always seemed to be there, and he ran toward the sound. He hauled Jimmy back upstairs and stood him up long enough to hear him say, “Your brother is a fuckin' faggot and so are . . . ” before Andre ripped a perfect right into Jimmy's face. The blow caught Jimmy square on the mouth, knocked his two front teeth clear down the back of his throat. As Jimmy slumped to the floor, Andre gave him two more, shouting with joy it felt so great.

Then, as now, there was always the looming presence of their father to complicate the matter. It was classic Cain — and — Abel stuff, each son a rival for the affection of the Supreme Father; a competition made all the more urgent now that Big Andre, as he was called, had split to set up house with a new wife in another part of town.

Big Andre wasn't tall, but with his big barrel chest, the shirt collar always open, he had a certain swagger that made him seem big. Too big, sometimes. He'd take over wherever he was, just make it his. A classroom, a bar. In minutes, with his seeming mirth and his plentiful stories, he'd have every eye on him. When his son and namesake broke people in two, no one was happier about it than the old man, and these exploits opened a door between the Andres. Not son to father, though. It was more like pals, drinking buddies. If anything, the son became the father, teaching Daddy to lift weights, bulk up, to become the sort of man who can be measured by his muscle.

In those days, Jeb was the creative one, but that didn't cut any ice with his father. If anything, the way he left Jeb out went beyond a simple disdain for an oversensitive artiste to something more visceral. “My dad would laugh and carry on with Andre, but he just totally ignored Jeb,” Suzanne says. “He was just so frustrated with him!”

It's not hard to guess why. If Little Andre represented the tough guy Big Andre wanted to be, Jeb was the softie that, at heart, Big Andre may have feared he was. Like Hemingway, Dubus may have styled himself a good old — fashioned man's man, but there was something else there — — a more contemplative, sensitive, and interesting element that came out in his stories, which are riddled with his angst about the true meaning of manhood. Did a man really have to be a brute? The anguish permeates “Killings,” the story that made it to the big screen two years ago as In the Bedroom, in which a man seeks to redeem the murder of his son through violence.

To a man like Big Andre, the inner conflict between the hard and the soft must have been unnerving, making Jeb not just a downer but a threat. He turned on Jeb with a vengeance, as if to drive this devil from him. One Saturday night, when Big Andre was drunk, as he often was on the weekends in those days, he came roaring into Jeb's dorm at Bradford — — where, like his brother, Jeb got free tuition as a professor's kid. At the top of his lungs, Andre screamed at his son to go kill himself. “And if I didn't have the courage to do it because I was a cowardly faggot,” Jeb recalls bitterly, “then he would do it for me.”

Jeb took the hurt, as he always did, but it was Andre who left. He did his junior and senior years at the University of Texas, and then, after a year back in New England, began working in the West, starting in on the many tough — guy occupations that would inform his writing career. His sister Suzanne left, too. So did young Nicole. Only Jeb stayed. Always attractive to women, who saw something soulful in his haunted eyes, he had a fling at 19 with a rich college girl and produced a son. The boy gave him something to live for.

Meanwhile, Big Andre seemed to get more impossible by the day. He divorced again, then remarried once more, unhappily. He became louder, more full of himself, more estranged from his children, and more deeply frustrated. Then, as Suzanne says, “God saved him.” In a most mysterious way.

Andre senior had been in Boston doing some research for a new story. Driving back to Haverhill on I — 93 late that night, he saw a disabled sedan on the side of the road and instinctively pulled over. The car belonged to a sister and brother, and Andre was seeing how he could help when another car sped toward them out of the night. He managed to shove the woman clear, but the car smashed into him, knocking him nearly a hundred feet up the highway. One leg had to be amputated, the other was left useless. The big man would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

The family rallied around. Andre came back to help out. He and Jeb built a wheelchair ramp. Andre got his father on a workout regimen to thicken him back up, and shaved his beard every morning. The convalescence made Andre senior aware of the need he'd always had for his family.

Jeb seized the moment to have it out with him, to tell him to stop even trying to be a father to him if he couldn't manage it. And Big Andre opened himself to a new, almost brotherly affection for the son he'd kept at arm's length.

Andre had been getting ready to have a conversation like that, too. Somehow, the occasion never quite presented itself. Things seemed good enough between them. They laughed together, had good talks. But young Andre never did quite get clear on where they stood with each other. Were they just pals? The last night before he left for a book tour, his father must have called him five times to get him to come watch a boxing match on TV. They watched the fight together, and then talked till 3. At the end, his father kissed him on the lips as he always did, but this time, when Big Andre said he loved him, he seemed to mean something more than usual by it. As he left, young Andre saw his father up on the ramp in his wheelchair, his face in profile against the starlit winter sky.

When the call came to him in San Francisco that his father had died, Andre flew back to Boston and, practically without a word, picked up his brother. Together, they went to the lumberyard to choose some wood for their father's coffin. They stayed up all night building it. In the morning, Andre's wife and mother came to line it with the sheets from the father's bed. The next spring, the Dubus men dug their father's grave themselves.

The late Andre Dubus's body may have returned to the earth by now, but he's not gone. He lives on in his stories and in the many stories told about him. And he is in his sons. Isn't that where all fathers go?

They're together now, as they so often are, four years after their father's death. They are standing side by side, raising another wall of Andre's house, nailing it into place. When you see the brothers together, laughing at each other's jokes, swapping stories, you get the feeling of a really good fit, of a completeness they make. They've shared everything, suffering and need most of all, and now they share each other. They're different, sure. But they're the same in this: Each brother knows exactly what the other means when he says, as they both do, straight out, that he loves his brother like nobody else can.