Ted Prokash employs a rich, poetic voice to tell his story of middle America, giving The Brothers Connolly the quality of an epic. His narrator breaks this novel free of its small-town confines. The writing, here, is the main event.
Prokash is skillful and convincing in his portrayal of life in Napawaupee, Wisconsin. He renders with equal affection the artist’s struggle (Jack Connolly); athletic pursuit, conquest, and glory (Bobby and Jim); and youth’s pitiable romantic angst (Teddy). And his townspeople—the chronic drunk, the cruel and withering mother, the single father, the closeted homosexual, the teachers and students and coaches of the high school so central in football season to the lives of these middle class role models—cut as dynamic and full a presence as the narrator’s textured voice.
Jack, the oldest, slinks back home—without making it feel like slinking—after two decades in New York fruitlessly pursuing success as a playwright. He takes up residence above Belgy’s bar, one floor up from where his father installs himself daily on a stool to drain mugs of Pabst. Before an audience of dead venison Jack develops his next great artistic vision: “Jack floated around the apartment on a crazy cloud. He paced along the close walls of his little living space as his mind raced along the interminable rim of an exploding universe. His body bounced about his rooms, trying to keep up with the mad rush of his thoughts.”
The show Jack develops is meant to be a sexual odyssey for the stage, something we suspect will never be finished, and if it is will most certainly not be right for the rural homespun Napawaupeans: “Your honor, if it pleases the court, the prosecution presents exhibit A: the accumulated written pages of the ‘brave new play’… (A paltry few pornographic scribblings in the masturbatory opus of a dumb life).”
Brother Bobby Connolly and his son Jim are the pride of Napawaupee. Within them both resides athletic glory in its most jubilant. Between them, a dark secret, an early, secondary climax in the form of coveted cheerleader Debbie Pinson. Around this tension Prokash captures the conquest of football in muscular prose:
The ball is snapped and Jimmy comes flying—something rabid-big, crazy catapult fodder. The quarterback is dropping deep. Jimmy is coming fast—suddenly too easy. He smells it in the air. Now, an elegant argument for the physical prowess of the human animal: Jimmy stops on a dime and makes a cat-like, backward, upward leap, just as the quarterback tries to dump the ball over his head.
Then there is Teddy, late to the family, whipped by his mother, age-mate to nephew and local quarterbacking hero, Jim. Teddy’s a sad-sack romantic, lovelorn for the girl pulled suddenly from his life for a fresh start in California. By telephone, he studies “the sound of her voice, the inflections, the tone, the timbre, as if it might hold a hidden clue as to how his life should go on.” In Teddy resides great tragic climax.
The three brothers are products of a cruel and sadistic old gossip, Martha Connolly, and her dwindling husband George. At the suggestion George may be dead Martha looses “a terrifying cackle… the broad blade of her wicked laughter” flaying the air. Against Teddy. Against Teddy’s beloved Natalia. Against, even, the anonymous and suffering opponent whose jaw just got broke by her football hero grandson: “Oh for Peter’s sake! Get off the field then!” Martha exclaimed, much too loudly. “He’ll have to toughen up a bit if he wants to play football.”
Is it any wonder, then, that father George should find himself perched eternally atop a barstool, a man of lost dreams? What happened to this man’s dreams?
Here Jack was struck with a thunderbolt revelation. All at once the totality of his self-absorption became frightfully clear. That his own father could have reached such depths of despondency without his ever guessing it filled Jack with a sudden, acute shame. He felt like a forty-year old child. Never in his life had it occurred to him that his parents might once have been young, or that they too might have known the hopeful dreams of youth. Thus, as his father indulged a rare urge to reminisce, Jack was all rapt attention, mystified in his personal discovery. He was like a pilgrim at the gates of the New World—a world of black fecund soil, every bit as ancient as the earth itself.
With these revelations and this fine writing Ted Prokash delivers an excellent novel. If there’s a flaw, it’s that he loves his characters too much, holds great fraternal or paternal pride in their lives. He gives them pain but it is ordinary pain. We are not shocked. The unwanted pregnancy is far in the past but would have made a cringeworthy hook here; the local homosexual busted for soliciting a prostitute takes his habit off-screen; our drunks fall asleep, often, without real consequence. Even the unfulfilled playwright, in the end, finds something that will give him joy.
Readers looking to savor good prose and to meet relatable characters living ordinary lives will enjoy the powerful beauty and lyricism of Ted Prokash’s work. His scenes are drawn with vibrant lines that pulse and throb. The Brothers Connolly is comforting, a sort of homecoming.