We were in the “international bookstore” of Xiamen, China, which is really a Chinese junk and bookstore but has half a dozen shelves of English books (such as Gossip Girl and 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). My wife found a Signet Classics edition of The Brothers Karamazov. “Do you want that?” she asked. “You do, don’t you? It looks boring.”
“I’ve already read it,” I said.
I put it back on the shelf, and we left. My wife likes the novels of Ann Patchett and Joan Silber. According to her, I only like boring books, like the work of middle-aged white men like Jim Harrison or Frank O’Hara. Or Dostoyevsky. Part of marriage is trying to continually surprise your partner, so I tried to forget about the Dostoyevsky. Half an hour later, however, while my wife sat with a bowl of noodles, I ran back down the street and found The Brothers Karamazov where I’d hidden it behind a paperback of The Federalist Papers. I paid my 60 R.M.B. and I carried it against my chest, like a baby, back to the restaurant. “I love this book,” I said.
When I was twenty-three, I loved Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That entire summer, I would open my copy after dinner and find a passage that related to an event that day. It was like my Bible. But now, at forty-three, I find that nothing is more true than the melodramatic, quasi-hysterical, murder mystery of The Brothers Karamazov.
For most of my life, I had avoided The Brothers Karamazov because I was afraid it would somehow encourage all my neuroses. It seemed obvious that reading Dostoyevsky hadn’t made Woody Allen any happier. Henry Miller and Anais Nin seemed to idolize Dostoyevsky while they were emotionally self-immolating. But then, at just the right moment–right before moving to China with my wife and little boy–I read The Brothers Karamazov. It was like making a basket at the buzzer. It was just what I needed, exactly when I needed it.
I’m half-Chinese, half-Hoosier. The summer I read On the Road I was living in Africa, exploring the world like I thought Kerouac would have. I was in the Peace Corps, but with a teacher’s strike and a long summer, it seemed like I was spending a lot of time riding on the back of trucks watching the rain forest snap past my head.
I was in love with an American girl who was back in the States living with a law student. I was in love with a Gabonese girl who washed her clothes in the river and covered her face with mud when her grandfather died. I had always been book-smart, not much for dirty hands, but that summer a friend and I got a grant and hand-built a six-sink concrete washhouse so a neighborhood could do their laundry without walking to the river. The mayor reneged on connecting it to the water supply and eventually someone stole all the pipe out of it, but I had many great afternoons working on it. A teenage boy who had worked beside me all summer was thrown from a truck and killed while I was riding a train in Mali. His father held my hand and showed me the grave in the rain. I exchanged long glances with a crippled girl, but when she finally came to my house, she admitted she was only fifteen and I felt how impossible everything was. I was friends with a Nigerian taxi driver who apparently had almost as many kids as I had students, but they were all back in his home country. My French friend started an affair with the Cameroonian mother of one of his students. Her French husband was not amused and later drove his Land Rover into the side of my friend’s jeep.
That year I was as much an Alyosha as I am ever going to be. That year I listened to everyone. I wanted to look every single person I met in the eyes and hear his or her story. I was incapable of judging people with any meaningful consequence. Intruders broke into a friend’s house, cutting his fence and pulling the bars off his windows. They piled everything in his house onto the center of his bed, then tied the sheets and stole it all. They stole the payroll for his woodshop by dragging the safe out to a truck and driving off. A couple weeks later, my friend and I were sitting in a neighborhood bar and a stranger walked in wearing one of my friend’s T-shirts. We jumped to our feet but, in the end, we let him walk away. Nothing seemed worth fighting over.
But then I got married and divorced. I stopped being so happy and curious. I spent a year in Paris staring at the sidewalk beneath my fifth floor window. I read Big Sur and Desolation Angels, but I wasn’t an alcoholic and my sadness was not quite the same. I wound up working for ten years in the American prison system. I met a lot of unhappy people. Kerouac was 35 when On the Road was published. I met a lot of people older than 35. I discovered that Dostoyevsky had himself spent four years in prison, that all his great books were written afterward. The year I left the prison system, I read The Brothers Karamazov.
I read it like the only child I was. No brothers. I saw myself on every page. I knew what it was like to talk earnestly with other people’s children the way Alyosha did. In Paris, I had wandered feverish like Ivan in the cold night. I, too, sweat with my forehead against the cold window of my room and hissed that I had no use for any God who did such terrible things. I loved Dmitri and the scenes of doomed pursuit when he loses money in the snow and all the spilled champagne turns into mud. I thought of the year in Paris I’d spent trying to win my first wife back. I hadn’t run away from women the way Kerouac had. I had chased them foolishly, stubbornly, madly, and ruined everything, like Dimitri. I felt that I had forfeited a happiness I had always expected to inherit. I didn’t believe in God and I found the Grand Inquisitor chapter completely unconvincing. And yet, like Alyosha, I felt it all seemed mysterious and wonderful and worth living.
My second wife had been hurt by her first husband and I swore to protect her, but then we were unable to have a child and I felt like a failure in every way. She retreated into unhappiness as I watched. I wanted desperately to be a father and this desire was without echoes in my Kerouac. I still loved the world, but it was no longer the love of a young man who had just left a monastery or a mill town–or, in my case, the cornfields of the Midwest. It was the love of a man who had spent years in a prison locked up with unhappy people and watching the open horizon from a distance–the love of Dostoyevsky, in fact.
The fact that the book ends with such life-affirming power–that the book makes me glad to be alive despite the fact that we are bound by “lacerations,” despite the fact that innocent children die, despite the fact that I find the eldest Karamazov (the father) completely believable. This book makes me happy to be a man full of crowded thoughts. I’m glad I didn’t discover this book when I was too young to accept that Father Zossima’s body would rot. Of course it would rot! I’m glad I didn’t read it at twenty when I would have innocently and timidly been confused in the lines of guilt that fall around Dmitri. Now it makes perfect sense to me that Dmitri is guilty and innocent at the same time. I understand now that the boy who throws rocks at Alyosha can become his friend. My wife and I adopted a little boy from Ethiopia. He has been a great joy for us, but all that joy begins with the tragedy of his birth parents. Everything in our lives is a mixture of bright and dark. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a good father. Of course I love this book.
My wife and boy and I moved to China because we were starting everything again. What did I need from the old world? Nothing.
Nothing? That’s what I thought until we got here. And then I wanted to Skype with my mother and father. And buy a new copy of The Brothers Karamazov.