“The Hundred Brothers”
Brothers, brothers, and more brothers. I have six brothers that range in age from 30 to 52 whom I was reminded of when I read the book “The Hundred Brothers” by Donald Antrim. Published in 1997, I had never heard of the book until I read an essay in “Farther Away,” a collection of 21 essays by Jonathan Franzen. The essay, “The Corn King” which also serves as the introduction to “The Hundred Brothers” touts the book as “possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American” and yet, “it’s often hilarious, but there’s always a dangerous edge to the hilarity.”
The story takes place in the library of a family’s crumbling ancestral estate, an abundantly large musty room with a fireplace and large windows that cast large shadows and light on the red walls decorated with prints of hunting scenes and heads of game animals whose “faces seem to scream out final terror.” There are sofas and chairs and rambling rows of bookshelves off the corridors and passageways and an area that also accommodates a series of dining tables configured so as to give the appearance of one unified family table.
100 brothers aged 30 to 93, have seemingly gathered for an annual dinner to bury their father’s ashes (but no one can seem to find the urn) although one brother, George is a no-show. The story is narrated by Doug, who introduces every one of his brothers in the first few pages of the novel. It’s not important to keep track of all the brothers for many are re-introduced throughout the story with some playing larger roles than others. Doug appears to be one of the “middle” brothers who is sympathetic to the emotionally broken brothers that lean on him for support and yet, Doug is not blameless as he readily admits he was one of the bullies in the family who used to beat the daylights out of his brothers and also one who stood by while others did the same.
He loves his brothers and he hates them. There is Heriam, the eldest who is a tyrant and is “an incredible asshole. He finds your worst insecurities and then tortures you until you’ll do practically anything to escape…” Zachery is the biggest physically and unnecessarily cruel to everyone while Virgil, the weakest of all the brothers both physically and mentally is a shadow of a human being that many brothers now feel the need to protect. There is Fielding, who is always filming the family gatherings including the most embarrassing moments and Chuck, who brought his dogs despite knowing some of the brothers have allergies. As Doug so succinctly states in describing his brothers: “It’s enough to make you hate mankind.“
There are alliances – the older brothers with failing bodies who empathize with each other, the quiet ones who can barely stand to be in the company of their louder, inebriated brothers, the “medical block” who monitor everyone’s health, the young-marrieds and fathers who spend most of their time looking at 18th century pornographic prints, the aging athletes, and the vegetarians who no one really understands. That the foundation of the story – 100 brothers – is absurd is almost irrelevant because the real story is the intimate knowledge the brothers have of each other, their behavior and the gathering itself for everything is not as it seems. That the library is falling apart from neglect simultaneously as the brothers form battle lines is at the heart of a story that is both shocking and disturbing. “One Hundred Brothers” is a story that leaves the reader with a lot of questions and an ending that will not be forgotten.