How to talk about We Never Talk About My Brother? First, note that it predates Bruno by more than a decade. But then what? Considering the astonishing range in this volume’s nine stories and single sequence of poems? Praising the characters’ odd corners that mark them as real people even when they’re inhabiting the best-known archetypes of myth? Marveling at the settings that Beagle brings to life in quick, indelible strokes of his pen? Counting the laugh-out-loud moments to see if there were more of them than heartstoppers?
Consider the first story, “Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel.” The first-person narrator — David, though he is not named until quite late in the story — is ten and a latchkey kid in New York. Most days after school he goes to the studio of his Uncle Chaim, a painter, and just hangs out, reading comic books or “look[ing] through Uncle Chaim’s paintings and drawings, tr[ying] some of my own, and [eating] Chinese food with him in silent companionship, when he remembered that we should probably eat.” (3) And then an angel appears.
It was very sudden: one moment I was looking through a couple of the comic books Uncle Chaim kept around for me, while he was trying to catch the highlight on the tendons under his models’ chin, and the next moment there was this angel standing before him, actually posting, with her arms spread out and her great wings taking up almost half the studio. She was not blue herself—a light beige would be closer—but she wore a blue robe that managed to look at once graceful and grand, with a white undergarment glimmering beneath. Her face, half-shadowed by a loose hood, looked disapproving. (pp. 3–4)
Uncle Chaim is nonplussed and says “I can’t see my model. If you wouldn’t mind moving just a bit?” The angel says he will paint no one else from this day forth. As if a celestial angel is going to push an artist around. “I don’t work on commission. … I used to, but you have to put up with too many aggravating rich people. Now I just paint what I paint, take it to the gallery.” (p. 4) And so it continues for a while, very droll, very Jewish. When the angel shows more of her radiance — “with the vast, unutterable beauty that a thousand medieval and Renaissance artists had somehow not gone mad (for the most part) trying to ambush on canvas or trap in stone” — Uncle Chaim wavers for a moment. “I thought maybe I should kneel, what would it hurt? But then I thought, what would it hurt? It’d hurt my left knee, the one had the arthritis twenty years, that’s what it would hurt.” (p. 5)
Beagle leans into the bit with conviction. There are sessions with the angel, Uncle Chaim remains his irascible but jovial self, the studio finds a new rhythm. Some artist friends can see her, David reads his comics. Only, over time, Uncle Chaim isn’t painting anyone else. His wife, David’s Aunt Rifke, begins to worry about him. He is spending more and more time at the studio, he’s distracted when he’s away from it. Their bickering banter could be the stuff of dozens of vaudeville acts or early TV sitcoms. Until Rifke brings a rabbi into the studio, and the story becomes something else entirely. The currents carrying the comedy along run so deep that I am still astonished the fourth or fifth time I have read this story.
And that’s just the opening act of the book. The title story is next, and it continues, in a way, the theme of having Biblical events intrude into the mundane world. Esau Robbins is the name of the brother the first-person narrator — Jacob, of course — never talks about. Beagle frames the story as Jacob talking to a reporter for a “Where Are They Now” segment, so clearly people in the story’s world would know who Esau Robbins had been, and just as clearly that he wasn’t that anymore. On the story’s third page, Beagle shows that Esau can alter reality. He whispers “You got run over” to Donnie Schmidt, a kid who had been beating him up. And then as Jacob tells the reporter:
See, what happened to Donnie, didn’t happen then — it had already happened a week before. Seriously. Donnie, he didn’t disappear, blink out of sight, right when Esau said those words. He just shrugged and walked away … And Ma yelled some at Esau for getting into a fight, but nobody else thought anything more about it, then or ever. Nobody except me.
Because when I woke up the next morning, everybody in town knew Donnie Schmidt had been dead for a week. Hell, we’d all been to the funeral. (pp. 39–40)
Esau can make anything have already happened, but readers know from the beginning that it doesn’t last. How does that come to pass? Well, that would be telling, and telling is what Beagle does, sparely, magnificently.
At this point in most reviews, I would say something like not all the stories are as strong as the first two, and point out things I think an author might have done better or some tales that struck me as needing a little more time on the branch to fully ripen. But all of the work in We Never Talk About My Brother is fine and ready, full of flavor, a good vintage. “The Tale of Junko and Sayuri” offers mythical feudal Japan, but more than that a story about class and ambition, about purpose, about many kinds of love. The anti-war fable “King Pelles the Sure” shows a ruler determined to make terrible choices, and then trying to make up for their folly. “The Last and Only, Or, Mr. Moscowitz Becomes French” could have come straight from the pen of Marcel Aymé, as in this brief scene with a psychiatrist Mrs. Moscowitz has sought in search of a cure:
“I have a patient,” mused the psychiatrist, “who believes that he is gradually being metamorphosed into a roc, such a giant bird as carried off Sindbad the Sailor to lands unimaginable and riches beyond comprehension. He has asked me to come with him to the very same lands when his change is complete.”
“Qu’est-ce qu’il dit? Qu’est-ce que c’est, roc?” Mrs. Moscowitz shushed her husband nervously and said, “Yes, yes, but what about George? Do you think you can cure him?”
“I won’t be around,” said the psychiatrist. There came a stoop of great wings outside the window, and the Moscowitzes fled. (p. 110)
Fortunately, these stories will be around. To astonish the first time, to reward subsequent readings, to reveal more each time.