Advance review by Bookreporter.com
DON’T FORGET ME, BRO
By John Michael Cummings
Stephen F. Austin State University Press
Families: they love us, they hate us, they confuse us, they support us, they believe in us, they hurt us, they forgive us, they never forget our mistakes …
It’s no good picking and choosing which of the above (in what could be an interminably long list) best applies to your particular family, or mine, because today’s assumption will become tomorrow’s irrelevance.
As author John Michael Cummings shows with such poignant and searing skill in DON’T FORGET ME, BRO families contain all of it. There’s simply no tidy, predictable emotional or dynamic boundary to draw around these most primal of human units. Even those who don’t know their biological families have collective relationships that daily test their autonomy, individuality, self-worth and dreams.
Cummings, who’s spent more than three decades writing about human beings, mainly of the everyday American persuasion, excels in uncovering those beneath-the-skin familial stories that realistically probe uncomfortable, often invisible, areas of life. And even in our current decade of sociological transparency, perhaps nothing is more resistant to illumination in this context than mental illness.
As a broad collection of chemical, biological and/or psychiatric disorders of the brain, it eludes clear-cut treatments and solutions as successfully as families elude pat definitions of who and what they are. When families and their perceptions of mental illness collide, as happens with such gritty persistence in DON’T FORGET ME, BRO all the discomfort of relationships, normal and otherwise, comes to the fore.
Returning home to West Virginia to deal with the premature death of his older brother Steve, long diagnosed as schizophrenic, Mark Barr carries plenty of his own emotional and psychological baggage, including a deep-seated distaste for a father he remembers as abusive, a mother who seems a passive bystander to life, and a middle brother who comes across as just plain weird. With a number of failed relationships on record – including the one that’s falling apart even as he sets out from New York – he’s not so sure about his own mental health either.
“Going back home” stories are often based on narrow cliché-filled themes that focus on a single character or experience. Like series TV shows, they are easier to control and wrap up in a satisfying sentimental or tragic package at the end.
Fortunately, DON’T FORGET ME, BRO isn’t one of them. It’s a gripping emotional and literary journey that hits just about every pothole one can expect to find on life’s road; that part is engaging and sometimes oddly familiar. And when Cummings throws in a few unexpected left turns, thanks to his character’s unpredictable relatives and colleagues, there are moments of surprise and difference to ponder as well. That skilfully managed dichotomy in itself sets this author apart, drawing the reader into places that challenge assumption and attitude.
At the outset, Mark does think this back-home story is all about him, but he’s not driven by ego or self-absorption as much as by fear, worry and chronic indecision. His own identity, perhaps even his future, are on the line.
But as he blunders into memories, people, and artifacts from the chaotic mosaic of his dead brother’s life he rediscovers who Steve really was. In spite of himself he grows into a kind of belated and bewildered stewardship over his brother’s cremated remains, which become a catalyst for revealing ever-deeper layers of family stories he never really knew.
Haunted by the last words he heard Steve utter – “Don’t forget me, bro” – Mark realizes that at the heart of every human existence is the fear of being forgotten, of simply disappearing into cosmic anonymity. After all, even families that can’t stand each other tenaciously remember their own.
With the unexpected complicity of his equally dysfunctional remaining brother, Mark hangs around his hometown, stumbling upon ways to build better memories than the ones he’d fled more than a decade earlier when he went to New York seeking success.
The Barr family changes a little, just enough for its surviving members to actually remain civilly in the same room together. That’s about it. Cummings doesn’t make their story television-comfortable, nor does he eliminate the heavy reality of an uncertain future.
Set against the larger contexts of contemporary economic depression, social despair, fear of the known and unknown, as well as multiple shades of guilt, remorse and anger, in the end DON’T FORGET ME, BRO can only exhale in a long sigh of acceptance.
Cummings adeptly leaves the reader suspended in that fragile moment before the next breath must be taken, yet strangely satisfied that compassion and justice have been attained. DON’T FORGET ME, BRO is a rare thing, a brilliant addition to a theme in which so many other novels under-achieve.
– reviewed by Pauline Finch, Bookreporter.com