Anyone unfamiliar with Barry Moser’s art ought to summon him up on Google before reading this and just gawk at his wonderful prints and drawings of Dickinson, Poe, Quixote, Hawthorne, Faulkner, scenes Biblical and mythic, Alice, animals, birds. It’s an impressive body of work, would be even without his illustrations for great books by Dante, Melville, Carroll, which are formidable. He works in a mode reminiscent of Leonard Baskin but is alternately fierce and calm, elegant and grotesque in his own way. His balance of gravity and grace will long outlive both today’s commercial fine art of the NYC scene and the sly graphic play practiced by so many with the tools for perceiving and rendering, but not the heart and spirit for bringing light. No matter how closely he works with texts, “illustration” is too modest a word for his craft and the resulting work.
But We Were Brothers is not primarily about art, though the story of any artist’s life is bound to feature reminiscences of learning the craft and seeking graphic expression without video games or pyrotechnic movies in mind. This memoir, forthcoming from Algonquin in the fall, is one of the two satisfying volumes I’ve read this month from a genre that usually leaves me cold. Reluctant to indulge in the sentimental or the standard moonlight and magnolias of its place and time, We Were Brothers still warms me with a flame born of friction and fed on candor.
We Were Brothers does not attempt to explore Moser’s laudable career as a professional artist or to catalogue either an artsy tendency toward glamorous misbehavior or a hive of secrets about transgression and rescue. It’s not quite 200 pages long and tells just enough of the story of the boyhoods of the author and his bother Tommy, two nearly incompatible peas from the same pod. Southern (Chattanooga), not affluent, temperamental, these two misfits scrapped and snarled at each other for years, though the younger Barry usually wound up on the short end.
Who was Mother’s favorite? Who was Dad’s? Stepdad’s? Where did the money come from and go? Why a military school for two so unsuited for regimentation? And twisting through the entire introspective story is the question of black and white, how two of the same blood developed such radically opposed attitudes toward African-American strangers, a black playmate or, more importantly, their mother’s elegant and steely black friend and neighbor, Vernetta Gholston.
Black and white. Ink and paper. These became the primary colors of Moser’s palette, and his nearly-photographic drawings of family, places and planes punctuate the narrative, along with vivid sketches in words, which imprint on a reader’s memory and imagination. Just two examples. As a child in Will Haggard’s grocery, Vernetta weeps when she’s told that she can’t accompany her white playmates to the picture show. Then she runs to the flour barrel and thrusts her face in, emerging dusty white but unsuccessfully disguised. “Now can I go? Now can I go?” she pleads. That scene will stay with most readers, as will the unembellished account of a burning B-25 Mitchell streaking across the American sky, it’s crew bailing out as it lost altitude. The pilot’s chute failed to open, and he plummeted to the schoolyard, as the engine smashed through a house “bounced ten feet into the air, and then rolled smoking into the street.” The prose is spare, and Moser doesn’t spend much time explaining the impression this knowledge and sight of the swath left by the craft left on the boys and the community. But the reader gets it right at the core.
Roosters and TV, segregation and white Jesus, dogs and scuffles, plus ridicule (of Barry for his awkwardness and chubbiness, of Tommy for his eye problems and recklessness) permeate this chronicle of boyhood, but Moser makes certain readers understand that he was raised to be a racist and took some time to realize that his inherited view was unwise, unhealthy and unkind. The sibling rivalry is not unusual for two boys in a household, but the rift about race that amplified their estrangement gives the narrative a torque, underscores and taints many accounts of play, work, family misfortune and petty disputes.
How did the author begin to see the light? What were the benchmarks in this clash of world views as the pair grew older? Like a stone skipping across a still lake, the narrative touches still water, then rises again. Moser’s approach is a chronological sampling, gathering momentum rather than spending it, but headed for a surprising exchange of letters that brings two voices to life, cuts to the quick and, painfully, recalls what brotherhood is all about and how painful is the road to understanding.
What most attracted my empathy and seized my imagination in We Were Brothers is the way Moser achieves admissions of his own shortcomings without falling into a standard confessional mode. He sees himself as neither hero nor victim and recounts even horrifying lapses of humanity with more than a tincture of forgiveness. It’s a good story, as simple and complicated as most people’s lives, and Moser inspires confidence and teaches the lessons that he has learned without assuming the podium or the stage. He can do this partly because of his devotion to the atmosphere and the personalities of those around him, and there are times when you can feel the crackling heat and the mist off the river, see the “blizzard of blue and white feathers” that is a shotgunned jay. Overall, Moser has rendered a compassionate view of a passing world, mysterious and complicated as the South we know from the fiction of Welty or the photographs and constructions of William Christenberry.