Barbara Esstman Reviews Don't Forget Me, Bro
a Novel by John Michael Cummings
Stephen F. Austin State University Press
Publication Date: December, 2014
There’s nothing like a death to bring the complexities of dysfunctional families into bold relief, and the Barrs of West Virginia are no exception. When Steve, the eldest of three brothers and a diagnosed schizophrenic, dies of a heart attack, Mark, the youngest who’s done some time in Bellevue himself, travels home after a long absence for the funeral. He walks straight into the crossfire of family arguments the death has precipitated, a broad spectrum ranging from whether to bury or cremate, all the way to sorting out who and what is to blame for the derailed expectations of the entire brood.
Steve has called himself “evidence,” a kind of Exhibit A that he symbolically does not want his abusive father to destroy through burning. How many parts of him were clinically insane in comparison to those parts that were damaged through nurture? With the same familial demons in different forms and proportions, Mark tries to make sense of his own issues through uncovering and dissecting what he can of Steve’s life. His exploration expands to include his estranged parents, his middle brother Greg, and his NYC girlfriend, all of whom cause him to question his previous opinions.
He gets unexpected help from Whitey, a local man with a bad reputation and an unquestionable attraction for the brothers. He delivers to Mark a large collection of photographs he’s taken of Steve during the period his family had little contact with him. Besides filling in the blanks of Steve’s life, such as the fact he had a girlfriend none of them knew about, the pictures offer rich clues to the family’s relationships with each other. As Mark tracks down the source of Steve’s memories and his take on the family’s past, he learns to understand them and himself in a wider context.
The prose in Don't Forget Me, Bro is lovely, the plot intriguing, and the characters realistic. Mark’s search to uncover missing pieces to the family puzzle gives the book the forward motion of a detective mystery. One exceptional tactic Cummings uses seems based on the William Carlos Williams’ quote, “No truth but in things,” which has the added benefit of developing a major character who’s dead before the story starts. The photos present images of Steve’s life, especially through items that Mark can read as a kind of code and that lead him to other talismans in the family connected to crucial moments in their lives. Those talismans in turn trigger conversations with his parents and surviving brother that reveal new information and cause him to reevaluate his point of view. As he says, they were an alienated family, but “still all one another had;” that connection, seen with revised understanding, brings the book to a realistic but satisfying end.
Barbara Esstman is author of The Other Anna, Night Ride Home and Sure Thing. She is online at www.barbaraesstman.com.
John Michael Cummings' short stories and essays have appeared in more than seventy-five literary journals, including The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Chattahoochee Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and The Kenyon Review. Twice he has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize. His short story "The Scratchboard Project" received an honorable mention in The Best American Short Stories 2007.
He is the author of the nationally acclaimed coming-of-age novel The Night I Freed John Brown (Philomel Books, Penguin Group, 2009), winner of The Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers (Grades 7-12) and one of ten books recommended by USA TODAY for Black History month.
He is also the author of the short story collection Ugly To Start With (West Virginia University Press, 2011), which The Philadelphia Inquirer calls a work of “sharp observation and surpassing grace.”