Countering Culture by Jessica de Koninck
The Brothers Silver by Marc Jampole (Owl Canyon Press, 2021)
Stories of family trauma, parent-child relationships,
and sibling rivalry are part of the human psyche.
They are central to the opening stories of the
Bible as well as to those of earlier traditions. In the
original trauma, God expels Adam and Eve from the
garden. Eve gives birth to two sons. Sibling rivalry
begins, culminating in Cain murdering Abel. Am
I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9) is a question
that continues to repeat. The Book of Genesis is
filled with dysfunctional families and siblings with
difficult relationships – Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob
and Esau, Joseph and his twelve brothers. The
patriarch, Abraham, sets out to kill his son, Isaac.
Death, deception, and betrayal characterize our
Into this tradition enters The Brothers Silver,
the first novel by poet and non-fiction writer Marc
Jampole. The book represents a highwater mark
in the history of stories of family trauma and
sibling rivalry and the kind of book you want to
talk with someone about after reading. It is also a
story of the Baby Boom generation, and the time
period from the late 1940s to the turn of the 21st
century. The story crosses the continent from East
to West and North to South, starting in Queens,
NY, and moving on to Florida, Illinois, California,
parts of the West, and back to the East Coast.
Novels by men about sibling rivalry are not new.
Consider the various intrigues in the similarly titled
The Brothers Karamazov. Parenthetically, one of the
pleasures of reading The Brothers Silver is the many
literary and other references and allusions scattered
throughout. There is no detriment to not recognizing
them, but recognition adds its own thrill. Again, like
Jacob and Esau, The Brothers Silver concerns two
brothers, Jules – the older, and Leon – the younger.
Typical of many families, particularly those with
absent parents, the older son is the caregiver, but also
deeply competitive, fearful of losing his birthright.
Meanwhile, the younger is detached and depressed,
but strong, smart, and handsome.
Less typical of novels written by men, The
Brothers Silver is an in-depth exploration of the
impact of childhood family trauma on the lives of
two boys whose parents are abusive and neglectful.
Their father, Ed Silver, who asserts that “all women
are whores,” is a largely absent narcissist, unwilling
or unable to provide financial or emotional support.
Their mother, Ethel Silver, experiences severe mood
swings and errant behavior, leaving her unable
to hold a job, care for her children, or manage
anything about her life.
Writing about family trauma is also not new
to literature, though it has unfortunately and
often disdainfully been negatively characterized
as confessional writing in both memoir and
poetry, as if certain life experiences were either
too embarrassing or too unworthy for literary
exploration. In conversation, Jampole noted:
Being a victim myself of childhood
abuse and neglect, and someone who
struggled it an adult – the largest part of
the struggle being admitting it, because I
am, of course, male – I basically wanted
to write about this subject.
Jampole writes from the poetic tradition. Despite
the brilliance of the poet Robert Lowell, who may
reasonably be called the progenitor of confessional
writing, there appears to remain a sense that
the exploration of feelings belongs to the realm
of women writers and is less serious or worthy
as subject matter. The Brothers Silver rejects that
negative assessment and unflinchingly explores
the origin and impact of childhood trauma. The
novel explores its lifelong impact and the difficult
and long-term work necessary each day in order
to survive. Childhood trauma, Jampole noted in
conversation, is not like a disease that you cure; it’s a
disability that you learn to live with.
The book opens with the two young boys, Jules
and Leon, wrestling, on the dusty floor of what
turns out to be the courtroom chambers of the
judge in their parents’ divorce hearing. The scene
is heartbreaking. The nightmarishness worsens as
their mother, popping pills, drives the boys home
and, in a stupor, must be persuaded out of the car.
There is an argument in the kitchen with their
father about signing the divorce papers. Sometimes
the house is clean, and meals are available. Often the
boys are left to fend for themselves. Their situation,
contrasted with Jules’s happier recollections and
hopes that things may change for the better, only
gets worse. The brothers remain helpless in the
face of their mother’s repeated suicide attempts
and inability to hold a job and their father’s
physical absence and emotional unavailability.
The Brothers Silver is also a literary novel. As a
result of both the authenticity of the child’s voice
and Jampole’s use of language, the opening chapter
is extremely powerful in establishing the source of
trauma. For those who read for writing, the Brothers
Silver is a glorious adventure. While the remaining
chapters are not as fluid or compelling as the
opening one, each drives the narrative, explores the
possibilities of language and form, and mixes genres
with fluidity. The text is keenly attuned to music,
from the rhythms that permeate the chapters to the
songs playing in the background or on the radio.
Indeed, music, chess, politics, and philosophy are
just a few of Jampole’s interests that The Brothers
Silver has sufficient gravitas to explore.
The Brothers Silver contains twelve chapters,
each of which can be read as an individual work,
But the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.
The opening chapter, “On the Cold Hill’s Side,”
is particularly effective as a stand-alone piece.
“Hashmal,” a hilarious drug-crazed romp through
a soon-to-be-closed Mikvah (Jewish ritual bath)
appeared in publication previously. Each chapter
is written in a distinct voice and style. It is a work
of literary fiction in the best tradition thereof. It
harkens back to the mixed genre explorations of
John Dos Passos, one of Jampole’s early influences.
As noted, “On the Cold Hill’s Side” is recounted in the
voice of a pre-adolescent child. Jampole carefully
employs the language and diction of childhood. At
the same time, the adult reader’s understanding of
the consequences of Ethel and Ed Silver’s behavior
makes the experience for the reader and the reader’s
compassion for the children that much more intense.
While set forth on the page in prose format, the
opening chapter is largely written in rhyme and
meter. The attention to sound has a trance-like effect,
pulling the reader along into the childhood world of
Jules and Leon. Jampole, in conversation, emphasized
his interest in writing novels using rhyme and the
relationship between rhyme and meter to create
emphasis. His use of poetic strategies to drive the
narrative voice, with each phrase amplifying the
next, contributes significantly to the effect of the
opening chapter as a whole.
For example, this excerpt finds the Silver boys in
Inside, sleeves above my elbows, tie
unclipped, I search the fridge and cabinets
for something we can eat. Eggs to scramble,
grated cheese, some onion dip, a box of
Cream of Wheat. I talk of Mantle’s injuries
to Lee, Howard at the plate replacing Yogi,
how Whitey with a mighty curveball put
a collar on Sherm Lollar, why I think the
Reds will tank, why Matthews is as good
as Ernie Banks, Cepeda, McCovey, other
Giants. I speak to fill my brother’s silence.
Not only has Jampole established the setting
of a boy working to feed himself and his brother
and provided a time frame with the use of
baseball examples, but, significantly, the hypnotic
iambicpace filled with rhyme – “Lee” and “Yogi,”
“collar” and “Lollar,” “tank” and “Banks” –
creates an immersive experience for the reader.
Immediately before recounting the trauma
that closes “On the Cold Hill’s Side,” Jules recites a
lengthy lyric daydream in an attempt to fit together
the broken pieces of his life. The reader understands
that nothing makes sense to Jules and that, though
he has been warned not to, he will blame himself for
whatever has happened or will happen.
As with each succeeding chapter, the second
chapter shifts tone, voice, and writing style. Jampole
believes it essential to tell the story in different voices
in order to gain a more complete perspective on the
characters and their situation. Chapter Two is a
soliloquy in the voice of Ed Silver, father of Jules and
Leon. The boys are now on the verge of adulthood,
Jules is in college, and Leon has taken off for San
Francisco. This claustrophobic use of monologue
is a particularly apt vehicle for a character with a
limited world view who is deeply narcissistic. He
understands neither his older son’s idealism nor the
The third chapter moves to dialogue in the
voice of secondary characters, an aunt and uncle.
This may be the least successful of the chapters
as an experiment in the use of language. Its
emphasis on Southern dialect often feels forced
and the characters one-dimensional. Yet the next
chapter, a third-person dramatic dialogue, skillfully
personifies Jules’s feelings by affording each one of
the characters a literal voice. Here’s a brief sample in
which the language feels fresh and satisfying.
Guilt: Unconscious mother, barking
television, plastic vials, glass half filled with water, knew it was all my fault.
Shame: Stupid, stupid, stupid, not to see
her breathing. Not to see she was still alive.
Anger: I knew she was alive. I wanted her
Another chapter is in the form of a letter.
Like the first chapter, the final chapter is lengthy,
approximately one-third of the entire book. It, too, is
in the voice of Jules, now an adult, forty or so years
after the first chapter. Like the opening chapter,
the final one, titled “Along an Unknown Highway,”
employs poetic strategies, but here the vocabulary,
syntax, and diction are those of an adult in which
Jules takes a lengthy road trip.
Jampole pays homage to the long tradition of road
trip stories with a quote from among the earliest,
and certainly the best-known, opening with a quote
from the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. The epigraph
reminds the reader that it may be necessary to go
through Hell to have any hope of getting even as far
as Purgatory, let alone Heaven.
The extended road trip affords the opportunity to
explore the turn of 21st-century American Zeitgeist.
It’s a lamentation for the promise of the 1960s and
the disappointing realities of the 2000s. Jules,
driving alone, traverses the country to visit with an
assortment of characters from his past, including
people met while hitchhiking. Indeed, hitchhiking, a
largely lost 20th-century phenomenon, is a central
metaphor of The Brothers Silver. What would Jack
Kerouac have had to say had he repeated his own
The opening paragraphs of the chapter,
through their use of poetic tropes as well as literal
language, make Jules’s road trip one that occurs
both within and transcending space and time:
The tumbling sky shivers like my bleary
body from the wind of speeding cars
and trucks. Squinting drivers steer into a
quivering solar ball that singes roads and
signs, sears the fences, flames the crows
and ducks. In my sight, glowing malls cross
horizon’s edge and welkin squid-ink stains
the spurge and sedge, leaches roofs and
building cranes, dims the city structures
into specks of light.
The birth of night releases cicada
humming, beetle scuffles, wind and spider
throws. Moisture stumbles over dell. Wind
song and cricket clatter swell and grow to
ostentatious silence. A white noise knells.
Time ceases giving hints of its existence.
Jules’s journey is most compelling when it
affords him the opportunity to meditate or advances
the narrative. His trip is less interesting when the
characters begin to feel more like stereotypes than
archetypes, and the narration becomes didactic
rather than revealing.
There’s one of almost everyone – the drug
dealer turned physician or politician, a lawyer who
represented draft evaders now a management labor
lawyer, a born-again Christian, black, white, gay,
straight, inhibited, uptight. More men than women.
With the exception of Ethel Silver, the female
characters, including Jules’s former girlfriend
Elaine, whom he calls El, are, for the most part,
less fully realized than the male. There’s nothing
particularly fresh about a drug dealer who grows up
to be a psychiatrist. In light of the serious psychiatric
problems among his family, more interesting is Jules’s
aversion to medication for ADHD, and, by implication,
other medications for psychiatric disorders.
The adult Jules, like most of the characters he
encounters, has given up the idealism and hedonism
of youth for financial security, routine, and certainty,
but he was never an actor who tried to effect change.
His principal and most important skill is survival,
while his observations about complacency border
on the trite:
But I was, nevertheless, part of the obscene
machine that ground down the dream of a
social democracy that we seemed on the
path to reaching in the mid-seventies. I
once believed fervently in the possibilities
of a social democracy overseen by a real
meritocracy, where everyone had a chance
to thrive, a green land that provided a
minimum standard of living, and free
healthcare and education to all, financed
by taxes on the wealthy, something like
France or Scandinavia. That was then. Has
my later apathy been any different from
Dean’s? Yet his occasional focus on who has gained too
much weight is entertaining and creates a sense of
Jules’s reactions to, and coming to terms with,
who each of these characters both was and has
become ground the story and maintain momentum,
even when the people themselves begin to become
repetitive. Similarly, Jules maintains his feeling of
being an outsider throughout.
While the ideological/political thread in the
story of Jules’s trip feels somewhat forced and
superficial, his continuing meditation about his
failed relationship with Elaine provides a deeper
understanding of Jules’s character. The reader
is left almost as baffled as Jules himself at his
subsequent ability to establish and maintain a long-term marriage
and a stable relationship with his daughter. He believes it relates
to his ability to view himself as the perpetual outsider.
His outsider status is the wall Jules has created
to distance himself from his emotions. Yet his ability
to connect with people he has not seen for years, his
successful career as well as the family relationships
of his adulthood, feel grounded and real and speak
of a level of hard work and commitment for which
Jules never gives himself credit. That lack of
acknowledgment of self-worth resonates as the
residue of a traumatic childhood. It is a corollary to
taking on the perpetual role of outsider.
None of us is truly our brother’s keeper. We
can offer help or guidance, but, in the end, we
can only live our own lives. And none of us can
escape whatever trauma life has brought us. The
challenge is how to live with trauma. Do we live in
denial, build walls to shut out feelings? Do we live in
perpetual adolescence without daring to explore the
possibilities of adulthood? The damage of childhood
trauma, will, to a greater or lesser extent, always be
permanent. The challenge presented by The Brothers
Silver is the challenge to survive.