Two devoted brothers, one awful phone call



Phone Rings

Stephen Dixon

Melville House / 333 pages.

We all dread that one truly terrible phone call, the one that heralds inestimable grief, the one we absolutely know cannot - must not - be true.

Stephen Dixon, winner of the Pushcart Prize and the O. Henry Award, a two-time nominee for the National Book Award and a Baltimorean on the faculty at Johns Hopkins, begins Phone Rings, his 25th work of fiction, with just such a phone call: Manny Fine calls his Uncle Stu to inform him of the accidental death of Dan, Manny's father and Stu's brother.

Dan, nine years older than the 60-something Stu, was out running when he died. The manner of Dan's death is unclear - did he fall? Did the branch of a tree hit him on the head? Was he mugged? Did his rib pierce his lung and suffocate him? But the fact of his death is definitive.

For Stu, Dan's death hits hard and swift as a sucker punch that just might rupture something vital and irreparable. No one - not his beloved wife Janice, in a wheelchair and suffering from a debilitating illness, nor even his two daughters, upon whom he dotes - is as important to Stu, is as essential to his daily life, as is Dan.

Those familiar with Dixon's work know he fingers the edges of the avant-garde, playing with form, style, vantage point, narrative and pacing. Dixon likes to distract his readers or drive them to distraction. Dixon's publisher touts Phone Rings as his most accessible work, but accessibility is in the eye of the beholder and at times only relative to the author's own work: Joyce's Ulysses was more accessible than Finnegans Wake; Woolf's Orlando more so than To the Lighthouse; and Phone Rings more so than any other Dixon.

Phone Rings is vintage Dixon: He likes his readers to work hard for their narrative, keeping them always a little off guard, making his narrative demand more from the reader than casual attention. If you blink during a Dixon novel, you pretty much have to go back to the beginning and start over.

The book begins with that first phone call - was it really only one? Did it really even happen? Or was it just Stu's fear that imagined the call, his fear of losing the person on whom he was most reliant, the one living brother (two others died young), the one sibling to whom he felt a connection. (Of his three sisters, one died young and he isn't close to the other two.) It was almost as if he had no other siblings: Dan was the one he called to complain about Janice's van breaking down and his daughter Anita's driving test, and to chuckle over reminiscences of his and Dan's childhood.

Whom would Stu call when he found some of their father's bogus business cards in a drawer - their father, Morton Feingelt, the dentist who went to prison for being the middleman in illegal abortions and whose wife demanded that he allow their children to change their names to Fine to avoid the shame? Whom would he call to deconstruct the time before either had married, either had had children, either had found and lost and regained their dreams? Whom would he call - and who would be there to be called, should something happen to him? Whom would he call to be reminded of who he was - Dan's brother.

Dixon creates an intricate narrative puzzle in Phone Rings. The chapters (hardly true chapters in the linear-narrative sense of that term) serve as demarcations in the lives of Stu and Dan, who love each other deeply, who have a fealty to each other and to their shared history that is born not only of blood but of a relationship built carefully over time, nurtured like a fragile sapling that takes years to bear exquisite fruit.

As Dixon reviews the many phone calls between Stu and Dan over the years (they rarely visit each other but talk almost daily), the full story of their lives as brothers and as friends evolves: a funny, sad, emotional and poignant story of familial love in the face of much rather ordinary suffering and tragedy. There's nothing monstrous revealed in their past, no devastating secrets. Yet the pain of their childhood is palpable, and the differences in their shared suffering draw them still closer.

Phone Rings details the long, complex history of a New York Jewish family from the crash of 1929 to the present. The colloquial conversations between Stu and Dan never appear very deep, yet they delve directly into the tender heart of how and for whom we develop our most sustaining attachments. Dixon's ending returns us to the original phone call and to that most visceral place, that terrible dread, when the phone rings and we don't want to know who's there. This remarkable and stirring novel is one of Dixon's best.

Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and the author of several books of fiction. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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