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Life Arts    H4'ed 7/24/21

Book Review: I Had A Brother Once by Adam Mansbach

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book cover I Had A Brother Once
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He's Heavy, He's My Brother

by John Kendall Hawkins

A joke is a judgement which produces a comic contrast; it has already played a silent part in caricature, but only in judgement does it attain its peculiar form and the free sphere of its unfolding.'

-Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relations to the Unconscious (1905)

I have long fantasized about starting the world over, new civilizations. I'd start by eliminating what we have now. Not through mass murder or genocide or transportation to far flung exotic prisons, but by putting the smartarses in charge. When Lear and Alexander prove not up to the task, I'd put in their Fool to rule. They're the real philosopher kings. They know the human terrain, have guided the Guides. Nobody knows, or gives a sh*t less about Reality, than these boffo stand-up Sockoteases who rule the empire of our shitfaced minds in some dark corner of the world, ice cubes tinkling in the glass as if at the punchlines.

I'd divide the world into those who laugh and those who don't. Foibles would be welcomed, reification, beyond the telling moment of the joke, would be banned. You wouldn't need to tell a joke, although a place at the mike will be reserved, but merely able to laugh at a joke. What the better comedians do best is remind us that none of us really knows a goddamn thing about how it all works. We live in a world of contradictions, hot air balloons that fat cats make their escape with when no one's looking, and systems of ideals so soon fraught with incomprehension as to be entirely inchoate when pushed into practice. We need to laugh to adequately express the human condition that hasn't changed in millennia. Even DJ Trump, for all his blusto-criminality, stood up to a roasting for the ages.

I'd raise the status of the former slave elements. The laughing American Jew and the ribald cotton pickin' Slave legacy types would shoot right to the top of the heap. If we had to start over again, and it's looking more and more like we'll have to, I'm recruiting the Lenny Bruces and Richard Pryors, the stand-up Woody Allens and Spike Lees (when he's in a funny mood), and Key and Peele, who, as byproducts of white/black parents, are deliciously familiar with the whole damn flim-flam of being someone other than who you are and laughing your ass off about it. Advent calendars would contain punchlines for jokes you waited a year to complete) imagine the yuck, if a home run was hit). Future presidential and Congressional elections would be decided by laugh-offs. We would punch the electoral college mascot in the face.

Speaking of shameful QAnon shamans and Proud Boy types, and in the service of laughter, I interviewed a guy recently, one Robert Guffey, who has done expose's on QAnon and told me,

They were founded by the guy who started up Vice magazine. And he was a stand-up comedian. [I've been told that a] lot of these weird neo-fascist movements were started by failed comedians. And you wonder about the people behind Q. There's a definite sense of humor behind it all, but not in the people consuming it. They seem to have no sense of humor. I have a friend who spent a lot of time in Russia and he was adamant that he thought the whole QAnon thing was a Russian disinformation campaign. Who knows?

The Russians? Well, we did give them Yeltsin, and we claim they gave us a Rupert Pupkin (although, Bobby did threaten to punch DJ in the face, which wasn't funny....). Maybe, we need to go light on Italians at the top for a while. More surf less turf. Same with Mighty Whitey (and you know who you are) who goes nowhere in my New World Order until s/he learns to laugh at itself.

As for the Proud Boys, the name is derived from a Disney musical number for the film Aladdin that didn't make the cut, presumably because the fawning mommy-I'll-make-you-proud vibe suggested Cruella-like domestic abuse of children. The song did go on to feature in the Broadway musical, however. The punchline is that none of the Proud Boys seem to be aware of their own orphaned roots. Failed sit-down-and-shut-up comedians. Nuff said.

I was ruminating on this cud-thought as I considered I Had A Brother Once: A Poem /A Memoir by Adam Mansbach. This guy's funny, but this book ain't. Mansbach is a Rutgers professor in the New Voices Visiting Writers program. He's written novels such as Rage Is Back and The End of the Jews (2009); poetry books such as genius b-boy cynics getting weeded in the garden of delights (2001); a screenplay called Barry (2016), about Barack Obama's Columbia University years (the early 80s); and, humor books, including A Field Guy to the Jewish People (2019). But Mansbach is most clearly "celebrated" for his three outrageous adult children's books: Go the F*ck to Sleep (2011), You Have to F*cking Eat (2014), and F*ck, Now There Are Two of You (2019).

Mansbach's young readers work has been exceptionally popular, reaching bestseller status on the NYT list and at Amazon with Go the F*ck to Sleep. The 10 year old book recently got a resurgence when Samuel L. Jackson read, first, a more recent Mansbach offering related to Covid-19's safe-distancing protocols, Stay the F*ck at Home (2020), and then followed that reading up with a marvelous rendition of the "adult children's book," Go the F*ck to Sleep. Check it out:

book cover go the f*ck to sleep
book cover go the f*ck to sleep
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You listen for the child abuse in the voice, evil intentions the child would hear. But if you don't hear it in Jackson's voice, maybe it ain't there. No question that Jackson was brought in for this operation for his make-you-drop-turds-in-your-pants role as a hitman in Pulp Fiction. Remember how effective he was getting those unruly kids to go to sleep in that Big Kahuna Burger scene? Check it out:

If you were a colicky infant would you f*ck with Samuel L. Jackson looking down the Bible barrel at you like an angry god? I don't think so. Not even if you were an adult. You can understand how Mansbach's 'children's books' would be so popular.

But the book is for adults. It doesn't get read to a child. That's the gag. What, no doubt, has made Go the F*ck to Sleep so popular is the cathartic chemtrails it releases into a young couple's (or old couple recalling) moral consciousness. You find Mr. Right or Ms. Left and settle down for kid-making sessions, baby batter up, new yous in the world, like it's some kind of freaking relay race of genetic torch passing, families as marathons, and somehow end up, despite the overgenerous amount of love in your heart God has bequeathed you, feeling enraged suddenly when your beautiful (no, really) newborn is crazy noisy, demanding, needy, and cholicky. You can go totally f*cking nuts getting up over and over in the middle of the night to bring a bottle or to coo disingenuously, and it no sooner gets quiet, and you tip-toe out of the room, when WHAAAAA!

And, suddenly, lefty you, all humanity on your unshrugging Atlas shoulders, find yourself all bunker mentality, goose-stepping, sieg heiling, picturing yourself defenestrating, while your wife snores, which pisses you off more, because it was her turn to get up. Get up. Get up. You think.

Must be a lot of young parents who feel the same way, if the book reached Number 1. I'm not alone, the book says. It really is Hell and someone else knows it. But it's also just a rough patch, maybe the first one with your bride, the first knee to the dangling ganglia of your marriage, the opening salvo of the irony and wah-face your laughing Vow face makes at you in the semi-dark. The wedding mozel tov glass smash, over and over and over. Deerhunter comes to mind, Nam, endless Russian roulette days ahead. Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, you think I'm funny....WHAAAAA!

So, there's one aspect to Mansbach. He's funny. But like so many good humorists, especially the more morally-advanced secular Jews (no, really), there's a method to his madness. At least, that's what they tell us. (For all we know, he's a fuckin drongo writing books for cover.)

But I am here writing this review not to bury Mansbach but to praise him.

His latest book, I Had A Brother Once: A Poem /A Memoir is a poignant account of his brother's suicide. Boom, I'm thinking. Am I ready for this read? Dunno, when some comedians go dark, whoa, the punchlines suffer -- and you got Lenny Bruce in the doldrums, or a guy who suddenly wants to join strange conspiracy-driven insurrectionists and march like Thor on Washington. I gingerly moved ahead, flipping through the e-pages, mollified and assuaged anon. Mansbach is excellent: part formulaic (the list of Who, What, Why you go down trying to understand) and part riff, with plenty of burst of teleological lyricism that ends with the secular Jew's re-embracing of the faith to send his brother off with a reading of the Kaddish.

Mansbach's long poem starts out by telling us where he was on the night he heard his brother had died. He was DJ-ing at a night club:

it was about twelve

thirty & might even be after

the first call from my father,

the one i ignored, straight

cognitive dissonance, there

was no earthly reason

he would call that late &

i was in the middle of

my set, no one was sick

or frail, my last living

grandparent was already


His father, not named, is a copyeditor at the Boston Globe. Mansbach imagines that his father probably dialled his number by accident on his way home from his shift. This near-opening section of the poem/memoir introduces us to the language and rhythm he uses throughout. It's almost conversational, with a loose rap-sing texture, that sets the reader up for later sudden bursts of spirit-riff. Or as he describes it:

i would live

here in this preamble

forever. rework it. fold in

new ingredients. knead it

till the gluten breaks.

It's a jazz flow. But it also describes what he does throughout. Fold and knead. Rework.

He continues to try to figure out what his father's calling for. He remembers his Dad telling him how he delighted he was recently when he took copy off the AP wires at work and held in his hand a piece about Adam's overnight sensation Go the F*ck to Sleep. He calls his father back:

my father said

david has taken his own life

Boom. He's down. He can't find a way to reply. His father repeats, folds it in. Adam wonders:

...what are

the rules of this endeavor,

am i supposed to unfold

the moments of this night

like an origami crane,

crease by crease, is that

the penance or the healing,

the ritual, a march toward

or away from what?

Again with the folding. As with the dough, it's a simple, concrete way of describing the complex process of human emoting. It reminds me, for some reason, of T.S. Eliot. "Dry Salvages". The bit where he's describing groundswell time -- more ancient

Than time counted by anxious worried women

Lying awake, calculating the future,

Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel

And piece together the past and the future

Of course, Eliot's is a deeper take on the tolling, clanging of the Bell. Adam's more modern than that.

Of course, inevitably, Mansbach circles around the Question. He converses with his dead brother:

david, what did you do?

david, what have you done?

This is all normal, of course, and here posed in plainspeak. But, suicide is especially egregious for Jews. The diaspora. Survivors. Tribal sustenance. Suicide can seem to be the extreme endpoint of the expression "self-loathing Jew." There's some truth to this, in that Mansbach explains that his brother was suffering from clinical depression, a uniquely debilitating condition that can shut you the f*ck down. He recalls how his brother was found in his car with a suicide note taped to the window that warned about toxic gases:

...only just now had his body

been discovered, in his car,

he was a scientist, had done it

by mixing two chemicals

into a gas that killed him

painlessly, with a single


This death, by gas, is especially appalling to his community and extended family:

& my mother's mother's

father's parents, the famous

rabbis' kids, the minyan-makers

of burlington vermont, they

squat atop the glass floor

of the distant beyond, shaking

their great woolly heads &

asking why of all things

did it have to be gas

Because he was a chemist. And he could. Wouldn't you?

Early in the poem/memoir Mansbach includes a touching reference to his daughter Vivien, the target of Dad's sleep programmatics inscribed by Go the f*ck to Sleep. The reference is further evidence that she was not harmed in the making of that tough love book:

v did not come

to boston, did not want little

vivien to see everyone she loved

hysterical with grief, did not

believe you should lean on

your children in that way,

told me it was not a three

year old's job to comfort

anyone, or everyone.

Indeed, she might have told you to shut the f*ck up and be a mensch. And you woulda had it coming. Badda-boom.

Probably the most well-known and insightful book on the subject is Darkness Visible, a memoir by William Styron. The author of Sophie's Choice describes depressions this way:

Depression is a disorder of mood, so mysteriously painful and elusive in the way it becomes known to the self--to the mediating intellect--as to verge close to being beyond description. It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it in its extreme mode, although the gloom, "the blues" which people go through occasionally and associate with the general hassle of everyday existence are of such prevalence that they do give many individuals a hint of the illness in its catastrophic form.

For a lot of people the blues are a Dylan tune deeply felt, but depression is a cold, visitorless dungeon that you don't have the will to leave. You can die down there, sayeth the Bard from Duluth, become just another accident statistic.

But what are the dimensions of David's sorrow and depression? He wonders why his brother didn't fly to Peru and get kitted up with ayahuasca by some shaman, like normal people do. Instead, he just sat at his desk on the death day, like some latter day Bartleby, to reference an overworked metaphor, preferring to do not much of anything but die. Why didn't he go back to Guatemala, to the surf there he loved? Mansbach is lost:


this is not how a depressed

person thinks. i am imposing

dei ex machina, dumping

out my sack of narrative on

the floor, examining this from

the perspective of someone

who wants to be alive.

That's the problem. You step too close to that event horizon....

And this is what Mansbach seems to come to a full realization of. He's checked in with some buds who've lost loved ones to depression and/or suicide, to real avail. You want to think that there should have been a cry for help. That you should have seen the signs and intervened. But signs often get lost in the folds of things:

such a death has nothing in

common with any other.

it is unnatural, may in fact

be the only thing in the world

that is truly & completely so.

the life force is meant to be

locked in combat with the

death force. we evolved to

survive, we fight for our

lives. my brother switched

sides, turned his back on

all of history. david fought

to die

Yes, Eros versus Thanatos, said Freud. But, he also gloomily (and typically, the prick) posited a death drive (Todestrieb) that longs to return to a state of inanimacy. Sometimes people describe vertigo not as a fear of falling, but of jumping, wanting to let go. Let go. Go.

Towards the end, Mansbach brings in an anecdote about an aging, ailing friend to contrast to his brother David's thanatosis. Elvin Jones. Drummer for John Coltrane. Mansbach knows him through Jones' wife, who was Mansbach's former boss for a while. Calling Jones "the greatest drummer who ever lived," Mansbach keys in on the old man's will to live and play and express the ineffable to that last minute of his life. He describes Jones' relationship to Coltrane:


was the demon in their

partnership, elemental &

propulsive, the churning

ocean atop which coltrane

balanced as he searched

for god.

Wow, that's quite a responsibility. That's some Eros at work.

And the thing about Jones that Mansbachs seems to so admire, and wishes his brother had, is a way and means to absorb dark energy and weave and wind and fold in on itself. We can hear this in Mansbach's descriptions of Jones' last performances (wearing an oxygen mask):

elvin's certitude sat at

the precise center of him,

radiating an electric peace

that, by the time it reached

his four extremities

& passed into the bass

& hi-hat, snare & toms

& crash & ride, became

a storm.

He was the quiet center of an oceanic storm. As 'in control' as any Eye can be. He swung round the event horizon, teased the darkness with his light, and never fell in as David did.

I Had A Brother Once is an easy rhythmical read that eschews any roller coaster rides of abstract ponderment. There's some of that. But mostly it's a poem about a guy coming to terms with his brother's suicide at a time when he himself is enjoying enormous material success. This opens up rifts in his full soul and soulful riffs come out of his mind. It's a warm, intelligent, engaging remembrance that feels right when it ends with a reading of the Mourner's Kaddish, and Mansbach's ironical inability to let go of his brother:

you were mourned for, david,

you were loved, you are loved

& mourned for still, you

cannot leave entirely,

i will not let you go

And so it ends, but there are no spoilers in poetry. Read it. It's a fine book.

While you're at it, why not try Allen Ginsberg's Kaddish.

(Article changed on Jul 24, 2021 at 3:30 PM EDT)

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John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelance journalist and poet currently residing in Oceania.

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