Novel of Guilt and Loss
PETE DEXTER says his new novel is about guilt and loss. It sure is.In the opening pages, eight-year-old Peter Flood watches a neighbor's car skid on a patch of ice then slam into and kill his three-year-old sister in the front yard; his father's violent response to the girl's death, which in turn gets his father murdered; his mother's subsequent mental breakdown. Peter spends the rest of his life hoping for an inner peace that never comes. "Brotherly Love" is also about organized crime and violence in south-side Philadelphia from the early '60s to the mid-1980s. The setting warps the emotions and perverts the values of a group of working-class men, especially Peter. Peter is in, but not of, this dark, violent, self-enclosed community of south Philly and the Irish-controlled trade unions. It is a world Dexter minutely details much as he did in his award-winning novel "Paris Trout," about racism and cruelty in marriage in a small Georgia town. Dexter's characters act. Right and wrong in their world means only one thing - power. Control of the streets, the pension money from the roofers' union, the profits from the sale of illegal drugs are all ends in themselves. If these people reflect on their lives at all it is done as a preface to action against enemies. They look to the past only so as to not be weak and vulnerable in the present and future. Except for Peter. Like a body snatcher, his conscience takes possession of him whenever he reflects on motives, his or others. Such thoughts always make him feel guilty about someone he helped or failed to help, about something he did or did not do. If he ever had a sense of innocence, Peter lost it that day as a child on his front lawn. He has not found it at novel's end, when a Mafia assassin ends his search. After Peter's father is murdered, his mob-connected uncle moves into the house and raises Peter along with his own son, Michael. "He's not my brother" Peter is quick to tell anyone who thinks otherwise. When Peter is a young man, his uncle is murdered as he opens the front door to his house. A bomb goes off scattering his remains on the very lawn where Peter's sister died. Michael takes up where his father left off. Peter is unable to escape, or even imagine an alternative. He joins the brutal world where people are casually murdered when they can't pay back loans. Women, few and inconsequential as they are in "Brotherly Love," are stereotypes: A mother driven insane by violence; a tramp who thinks she is a cut above the rest because of her physical beauty, yet is trapped in a love-hate relationship with the men who own her; a good Italian wife making noises and pasta in the kitchen. If there is a father figure for Peter it is the tough ex-boxer Nick DeMaggio who runs a local gymnasium. When he sees the young boy stripped of his sneakers by a gang of teenagers, Nick teaches Peter how to fight and how to make it on the streets. The boxing ring becomes both mother and father to Peter. Punching fists and butting heads replace understanding and tenderness. Note the punch to a young boy's psyche in this description of confused eight-year-old Peter watching the chief of police surrounded by reporters and photographers at the neighbor's house shortly after his father has almost severed the head of the neighbor who ran over Peter's sister: " 'You find the body Frank?' one of the photographers says. The chief turns to the photographer but doesn't answer. Half a dozen flashbulbs go off; he straightens slightly, but offers them no change in expression. In Peter's experience, photographers always want you to smile." Dexter's prose is lean and swift, like a taut boxer setting up a heavier opponent for a later knockout. As grim and sadistic as the events and people of "Brotherly Love" are, once begun, it is impossible to escape the bob and weave of Dexter's probing pen.