A Book of Reasons by John Vernon
Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages
In her novella The Age of Grief the writer Jane Smiley notes the moment when “the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down.” A similar dawning pervades John Vernon’s autobiographical A Book of Reasons. When his older brother Paul dies of an aneurysm, Vernon finds himself saddled with the responsibility of his sibling’s estate. He must rehabilitate a house crammed with refuse and the sickening stench of dead pets and their sickening stench, as he tries to comprehend how Paul’s life devolved into dilapidation.
Vernon quests for reasons: how could a man perceived as an eccentric sociopath at most, fall to a state that could only be described as animalistic? Though the book’s time frame is the three-month period between Paul’s death and the dissolution of his estate, the author manages an exhumation of some 40-odd years in a struggle to reconstruct their lives together and apart.
As the author contends with his grief and the practical aspects of the house’s cleanup, he finds a coping mechanism: a consideration of items and commonplace occurrences. Buying a thermometer at Wal-Mart conjures a lengthy discourse on the history of temperature measurement. The purchase of equipment needed to build a simple set of stairs fuels a meditation on tools and how their evolution paralleled that of man and animals. Vernon reaches back through the ages to expound on how the contributions of Galileo, Pascal, Robert Fludd and many others shaped our understanding of how the present world came to be. The reader is treated to various insights ranging from how rocks were employed as hammers by Homo sapiens, to the murder of Abel by Cain with a weapon, or “tools that got to be weapons by being misused.”
It’s a seesaw, really: over here, the life of Paul alongside the author’s guilt, incredulity and dormant memory; over there, a timeless world with its theories, speculations and advances. Both carry a long circuitous chain of reasons or “recipes for making sense of the world’s arrangements and accidents.”
The bulk of the work is unapologetically nonlinear, containing a larger ratio of science to actual memoir. Yet the author’s brother is always there, haunting either a discourse on the history of internment or the origin of central heating back in 80 B.C. For readers who prefer straightforward memoir, these flights may prove a distraction from what is essentially a compelling look at sibling estrangement. But these technical flights never feel clinical or even detached. Vernon’s wounded, probing voice holds it together nicely, whether the subject is the Big Bang, or the circumstances that led to the appearance of nine-year-old Paul’s photo on the front page of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.
In melding science to the personal, he illuminates a universe that’s become as vague to us as his brother was to him, while reminding us that context is everything. At one point Vernon says that he somehow fell asleep while the brother’s life plummeted, an observation that might parallel our relation to the world. Everything is moving too fast goes the song; Vernon’s insistence on examining the implications of the everyday is an invitation to cease all our taking for granted.
Vernon entreats us with trenchant description and the use of metaphor. He describes the ritual of bathing after Paul: “This is how I cleaned myself: by lowering my body into Paul’s gray opacity rimmed with a sort of soapy pond scum.” The automobile looms as a vehicle of escape from the grief that the house represents, but also the seat of memory and revelation: an incident in their teens where he and Paul are humiliated by an aggressive motorist parallels the author’s recent discovery of Paul’s Duke Ellington CDs under the passenger seat.
At one point, Vernon asks, “Was his life a waste of life?” Paul’s obsession with pornography, his ham radio and the Internet were “amusements…of solitude and boredom.” His preoccupations with instruments of communication are symbolic of a desperate man pining for an elusive acceptance. As Paul sits glued to the computer in pathetic self-exile, Vernon makes ineffectual stabs at conversation: “He looked up only if I stood in the doorway, and eventually I did–out of fraternal duty or to torture us both, I’m not sure which.”
And there lies regret: ultimately, Reasons is atonement for a missed opportunity, though its lack of resolution leaves not solace, but an aching sadness. Paul’s disintegration becomes one more mystery of life that Vernon, unlike the intrepid Robert Fludd or Jane Goodall, can’t crack. In resigning himself, Vernon tellingly muses that “to be fully conscious of everything, of course, from the rivers of microorganisms we breathe in and out to the history of the shoehorn, would be a form of insanity.” That statement’s lesson – that the world and our loved ones occasionally escape our grasp – strikes to the heart of this work’s disquieting power.