When John Vernon's reclusive brother dies suddenly, the author finds himself in charge of the cleanup and sale of his New Hampshire ranch house, where he finds a decade's accumulation of trash, broken ham radio equipment, even a classic sports car. An unforgiving stench emanates from the disconnected heat ducts his brother had used as urinals; and in every room are mummified corpses of cats and dogs. In his search, the author finds his brother's diaries that exclaim, "I HAVE GOT TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT GETTING HOUSE CLEANED UP!! I DON'T KNOW WHAT?? I HAVE TO GET RID OF CATS!!"
A Book of Reasons is an artful lamination of two remarkable worlds. In jolting side trips into the history of human culture and clutter, Vernon writes charged and brooding narratives that juxtapose information about Paul's tragic life with his own lilting history of everyday things. Among a zillion diverse subjects, Vernon describes Pascal's vacuum tube thermometer, William Harvey's discovery that blood circulates, and quantum physicists' common "horror of zero." For Vernon, this information allows him entry into his brother's exile, as he explores and ruminates within Paul's dwelling, a place not unlike the infamous huts of Thoreau or the workshop of "Unabomber" Ted Kaczynski.
Irreplaceable gems and quirky yard-sale items of mind and matter emerge from the junk heaps of human consciousness. Vernon often quotes poetry, and his own poetry is strikingly right, as in "headlights like perfect little aspirins." When he discovers a photo of his brother holding a fruited apple bough upon which new blossoms have opened, it suggests purity and regeneration within his brother's confused life.
A Book of Reasons
By John Vernon
Houghton Mifflin, 272 pp., $23
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If Vernon sometimes teeters on melodrama, there is reprieve in his matter-of-fact and funny description of local hillbillies hired to clean out the wreckage of his brother's house. It is Vernon's guilelessness and awe as he sorts out the junk from the ore of the soul that makes this work such a convincing and heartfelt dirge.
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