© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Remembering A Troubled Brother In 'Lord Fear'

Lucas Mann's genre-bending first book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, was about an Iowa farm team, a dying Midwestern factory town, and his own anxieties about success, and it heralded an impressive new talent in narrative nonfiction. Mann's second book, Lord Fear, reaffirms that talent. A memoir about his much older half-brother, Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when Mann was 13, it's a less alluring, more difficult book — but clearly one that Mann needed to write.

Haunted by his brother's death, Mann attempts to bring him into sharper focus by plumbing friends' and relatives' memories and Josh's journals. But he quickly learns that memory "is a fight," tricky and elusive. Like Class A, Lord Fear demonstrates that Mann is a writer who avoids reductionism, instead embracing complexity and uncertainty.

"The problem is that no memory is entirely right, just as the meaning of the word can always change," he elaborates. "And what I'm trying to do, let my memory of one life meet and mingle with others, is a flawed endeavor, pretending that a peace exists within acts that are not peaceful." Mann looks to several literary touchstones — including Vladimir Nabokov, Roland Barthes and Virginia Woolf — for insights into the vagaries of memory.

Lord Fear takes its title from a poem Josh wrote in middle school. More than 10 years after his death, his other brother, Dave, who says he "despised" Josh, can still recite it from memory. It begins, "Behind an iron gate with a steel fence in an iron compound/There lives Lord Fear."

This poem, it's worth noting, was written years before Josh acquired the "constant, alive threat" of a pet boa constrictor, an Iron Cross tattoo (about which Mann says, "You don't have to be Freud to realize that a Jewish son showing his father a Nazi tattoo is looking for a reaction"), and a rabid heroin addiction.

Lucas Mann teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.
Matthew Celeste / Courtesy of Pantheon Books
Courtesy of Pantheon Books
Lucas Mann teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth.

Like the "armored muscle" of a snake, Mann's book squeezes us in an ever-tightening grip as it glides from Josh's funeral to wrap itself around many of his mourners' memories, beginning with friends and slithering on to increasingly close relatives.

The book rightly builds to its most devastating portrait, of a father (with whom Mann is obviously close) who, years after Josh's death, was still trying to make sense of his eldest son's "cracked" life. Mann captures the delicate dance Josh's divorced parents did around him, trying to buttress him while hiding their alarm and pity.

Part of the difficulty of Lord Fear is that the object of Mann's obsession, while at times charismatic, is also deeply unpleasant — a warped person who sadistically tortured cats, bullied his brother Dave and cousins, and nastily abused his worried, ever-solicitous mother. And while Mann manages to convey why his friends and family were so poleaxed by Josh's death, we ultimately care more about the people who cared about him — beginning with his sensitive younger half-brother — than about Josh.

Mann's book exemplifies several trends in memoirs. Most notably, it takes liberties with linear chronology. ("I think that's how memory works," Mann writes.) All names, except Josh's and Mann's, have been changed, along with some biographical details. Begun when Mann was in college 10 years ago, Lord Fear features scenes constructed from often spotty memories.

None of this is troubling, because Mann is upfront about it. But in a book about trying to nail down the ineffable, we can't help wishing for more concrete facts to anchor us. An investigation of Josh's arrest record, for example, could have provided a clearer picture of how he supported his heroin habit.

But clarity may be beside the point. Josh, Mann writes, "is in the thick air of the messy moments of all the years that have passed without him." Fortunately, Mann clearly has been endowed with the empathy his brother so sorely lacked. It enables him to move us with lyrical descriptions of Manhattan seen from a distance ("rising out of the water, stacks of gold light outlined by dusk. Everything else is disappointment"), and simple assertions like "I wanted him to feel better than he felt." Let's hope Lord Fear frees Mann to move on to happier projects.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.