By Jamaica Kincaid
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
198 pages, $19
Jamaica Kincaid scarcely knew the brother, Devon Drew, about whose painful death of AIDS she writes in her book "My Brother." The oldest of her mother's four children, Kincaid, born Elaine Potter Richardson, left her native Antigua for the United States when she was 17 and Devon just 4. With her visits home few and very far between, she was essentially a stranger to him when she received word that he was dying.
Toward him she found the customary sentiments of family feeling mixed with revulsion, bewilderment and anger. His was the life she might have led had she not torn herself away, and she recalls a boast her mother once made that had it not been for her, the mother, Kincaid "would have ended up not in the home and situation that I now occupied but instead with 10 children by 10 different men."
Kincaid does not sentimentalize her brother nor wring her hands over his wasted life. "Nothing came from him; not work, not children, not love for someone else. . . . My brother did not have a steady girlfriend, a woman, someone other than his own mother, to take care of him; he had no children, as he lay dying, his friends had abandoned him. No one, other than the people in his family and his mother's friends from her church, came to visit him."
Devon was a compulsive seducer of women, and, she learns, of men as well. He tells her one time that he cannot go two weeks without having sex, for to do so makes him feel . . . he shrugs. He had become a Rastafarian whose name within the cult was the name of a Hebrew prophet, "one whose prophecies were about pestilence and doom," and he was also a would-be reggae singer, whose stage name was "Sugarman." There was also a history of crime, including a gas station holdup in which a man had been killed, though the courts ruled that Devon did not pull the trigger.
Out of compassion, blood loyalty and duty, Kincaid comes to visit the brother whom she does not love, bringing along a supply of AZT from New York, because such drugs, or any therapy for AIDS patients, are unavailable in Antigua, where homosexuality is still shrouded in shame and gay men are treated with ostracism and ridicule. It isn't easy, and Kincaid is unflinching about her brother's physical deterioration, the bloom of thrush in his mouth and down his throat, his smell, the pungent fluids that leak from his body. She is unflinching, too, about her anger and her failure to love him as she imagines she should.
"I did not kiss him goodbye when I was returning home to my family, I did not give him a goodbye hug. I said to him at the end of my visit (four days), 'Goodbye,' and he said, 'So this is it, no hug, no nothing?' "
Kincaid takes hard views and delivers them in the honey-rich, high-viscosity sentences that have become her trademark.
Lurking initially in the background and then suddenly springing forward is the mother who was loving enough when her children were young but turned shrewish as they became older. "It is when her children are trying to be grown up people -- adults . . . when they are living in a cold apartment in New York, hungry and penniless because they have decided to be a writer, writing to her, seeking sympathy, a word of encouragement, love, that her mechanism for loving falls apart."
So bitter are the words that pass between mother and daughter that after a visit by the mother to Kincaid's home in Bennington, Vt., Kincaid fell ill for three months, and she confesses that her thoughts about her mother were filled "with intense hatred." Indeed, the ghastliness in the foreground -- the painful and humiliating corrosion of the brother's body -- is set against desperation in the background -- the dysfunctional family presided over by a tyrannical matriarch.
Devon phones his sister "to tell me he is sorry he never sympathized with me when I told him how awful she had been to me. He says to me, 'Mom is evil, you know,' as if he had never said it to me before, but he says it to me every time we speak, as if it is a new discovery to him."
The AIDS narrative by now has cut a channel deep and jagged through our literature, fiction and non-fiction alike. One thinks of Randy Shilts' "And the Band Played On," Tony Kushner's "Angels in America," Harold Brodkey's "This Wild Darkness" and Allan Gurganus' recent "Plays Well With Others." "My Brother" takes its place on that same crowded shelf, though it does not, I think, contribute anything new to our understanding.
The book lives more through its hypnotic rolling sentences than through its epiphanies. It is simply another retelling of the AIDS narrative, one in which Kincaid refuses to cop a plea for her brother as "disadvantaged" or a victim. "It was not racism that made my brother lie dying of an incurable disease in a hospital in the country in which he was born; it was the sheer accident of life; it was his own fault."
If there is a problem with Kincaid's book, it is that she never comes to know her brother enough to make him interesting to us, or even to herself. In life he appears to be what he became in death, pure flesh.
Far more interesting is Kincaid herself, who had the iron will that her brother lacked, to migrate to America to make a career for herself. She eventually became a regular at the New Yorker during the editorship of William Shawn, and even married Shawn's son, Allen, converted to Judaism and bore two children while pursuing her writing.
The Kincaid we see admonishing her children to get down to their Hebrew lessons is the truly fascinating character in this book, and who is to say for sure that the wicked harridan of a mother didn't bequeath to her daughter her most precious legacy: the desperation and will to save her own life?