In the early 1980s, dancers David Parsons and Daniel Ezralow performed a six-minute piece titled "Brothers," set to music by Stravinsky. Dressed only in black shorts, they pantomimed a contentious fraternal relationship — elbowing and punching, circling like boxers, eyeing each other with suspicion. The piece ends with the brothers locked in an embrace before walking off side by side, having achieved a precarious truce. It's a beautiful work.
Barry Moser's memoir, "We Were Brothers," has a similar narrative, although the sources of tension are more repellent than anything in the dance piece. Moser, an illustrator whose drawings appear in this book, grew up in the 1940s and '50s in Chattanooga, Tenn., with his older brother, Tommy. In spare prose, Moser describes their childhood and subsequent years of estrangement, a separation predicated largely on the effects of their racist upbringing.
Not that their childhood was nonstop contentiousness. They hunted and fished together. They tied string to the hind legs of June bugs "and flew them in circles around our heads." They loved each other but "rarely experienced deeply affectionate moments" like those between brothers in the books Barry read.
Many factors complicated their relationship. Although Barry had the greater passion for art, Tommy was the better artist. Tommy repeated first and second grade and developed a sense of inferiority that continued into military school, from which Barry graduated. Tommy dropped out.
Yet no one was more vicious to the boys than they were to each other. When Barry refused to help Tommy bathe their collie one afternoon, the ensuing fight was so violent — shattered lamps, holes in the living room wall — that their mother had to call the police.
The issue that led to their 40-year estrangement was Tommy's unrepentant racism. Tommy hated black people so much — an offensive racial epithet appears throughout — that when a tired Barry sat down in the "Colored" section of a bus, his brother beat him up when they disembarked.
Barry becomes a teacher and illustrator and moves to Massachusetts. Tommy stays in the South and has a successful career in finance and real estate. They have little contact until an exchange of letters in 1997 reveals the misconceptions each had about the other. They reach a tentative reconciliation that lasts until Tommy's death in 2005.
"We Were Brothers" feels familiar at times, but the book is a powerful evocation of an era in which African-American children could play in a white person's yard but weren't allowed into the house. And it's a moving portrait of two men much like the brothers in the dance piece — loving but wary, and capable of beauty even in the presence of the ugliest flaws.
Michael Magras is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Iowa Review and other publications.