Don't let the title scare you. My Brother's Madness by Paul Pines " although partly about the author's schizophrenic brother " is a page-turner. The book is a memoir, but it is also pure Americana " just not in the sense we usually employ the term. This is more the America of Sam Shepard than Norman Rockwell. It also is worth noting that Pines' previous book, Tin Angel, was a crime novel set in a jazz club in the Bowery in New York, where Pines ran a jazz club called the Tin Palace. This latest, more personal work owes much to Pines' skill as a novelist, though his years as a psychotherapist certainly did not hurt the project. The family the Pines brothers grew up in shaped their lives, but this involved a set of family values that were perhaps more suited to Clytemnestra (Agamemnon's murderous and adulterous wife) than anything invoked by George Bush.
The story ricochets gracefully between the present and the past. This gives insight into the pressures of growing up in an unstable environment and the various attempts to find a workable solution as it became clear that something was seriously wrong with his younger brother Claude. The jumps forward and backward are easy to follow and add a level of suspense.
My Brother's Madness begins in 1985. Claude arrives late for Paul's wedding and is 'as glazed as the ice-filled tureen on the buffet." Claude says that the colleagues at the lab where he works are laughing and whispering about him behind his back. Things then go from bad to worse, and his coworkers don't even attempt to disguise their contempt, he says. Men in suits watch Claude from doorways, follow him to lunch and report on his movements. We are soon deeply ensconced in a world of paranoia. The reader wonders how anyone afflicted with severe paranoia can continue to function, and how would one help a brother who has waded into a quicksand of horrible persecutions? I'd like to say the book answers these questions, but it doesn't. Instead, the book only makes it palpable what it is like to live and cope with someone who is suffering from mental illness.
Another subject of inquiry in Madness concerns the origin of a mental disturbance. Once again, the book is not a manual, but Pines wonders why one brother would survive relatively intact, while the other was stricken with illness. Having established Claude's grown-up paranoia, Paul recalls his early childhood and gazing at Claude in his crib. One scene depicts the two tots lying on the floor sucking on their bottles. Paul thinks he had an edge in the sibling rivalry because he was nursed for the first three months of infancy while Claude was not. That sort of observation " funny and sad at the same time " rings true and brings the Pines brothers at this tender age vividly to life. In any case, Paul's conjecture in the sibling comparisons sometimes proves illusory. 'Long before I master the alphabet," he laments, 'Claude, who has never suckled a drop of mother's milk, can recite it from A to Z."
The boys' father Ben is a successful doctor. Charlotte, their mother, is an aspiring lawyer " and she's also a violinist who once had her own all-female band. When Charlotte loses a case in which she defends an accused murderer, she goes somewhat off the deep end. Soon enough, the parents separate. As the brothers grow, they bounce back and forth from one parent to another, and the two households take on more ominous, Byzantine personalities. Charlotte gets involved with a dentist who loves practical jokes. Ben marries an amoral, unhinged, gold-digger who gradually reveals the extremes she will go to achieve her aims.
The memoir is not your typical psychological thriller, it's a factual one. The story is told with an elegant simplicity, there are unforced touches of humor and a sustaining sense of the irony of life. Pines' memoir is a pleasure " disturbing, yes, but a pleasure. Upon reaching the end, one feels the most astounding thing is not that one brother cracked up, but that the other somehow made it through. I couldn't recommend it more highly.