cover image The Brother Years

The Brother Years

Shannon Burke. Pantheon, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5247-4864-7

Burke’s lackluster latest (after Into the Savage Country) follows Willie Brennan through his teen years as he deals with his overbearing brother, Coyle, and their father, who clawed his way up from poverty on the South Side of Chicago to the North Side, where he expects gratitude and obedience. In 1979, the Brennans live in a wealthy neighborhood’s smallest house, where they are outcasts with their home-cut hair and paperboy father, who works five other jobs. The father imposes his “methods” on the four children, a series of self-improvements that have the kids up at three a.m. on school days to deliver papers, followed by an hour of calisthenics before the first bell. Willie, the second-oldest and about to begin high school, struggles with the family dynamics. When they were younger, Coyle had followed his father’s instructions to a T, but after Coyle turned 13 he became rebellious, refusing to cut his hair and hanging out with the “burnouts.” After Willie tells on Coyle for fighting at school, the two brothers’ relationship ruptures and Willie grapples with the question of whether words are more effective than violence. Burke does an admirable job of creating three-dimensional characters and exploring complicated family dynamics, but they’re not enough to buoy Willie’s stale, nostalgic narration. Hopefully, Burke will return to form next time. (Aug.)