November 2005

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers

I’ve always been impressed by Walter Dean Myers’s ability to tell honest and gritty stories about the difficulties faced by young men, often African American, who grow up surrounded by violence. He never makes his characters clichés and is a master at showing how much everyone has in common with everyone else, and how easily the lines between good and bad choices can be crossed. With his latest book Autobiography of My Dead Brother he seems to have reached a new plateau. This book is impressive on many levels, not the least of which is the accompanying art by Christopher Myers. The Myers have made me understand what it means to be a teenager, to be a parent even, with this book and I’m grateful to him for writing it. Now I just want everybody to read it, and maybe take a big leap in understanding just what is going on in our world today.

On the surface Autobiography is the story of Jesse, his lifelong friend Rise and Jesse’s project of telling the story of his friend’s life. Rise and Jesse grew up together, but the friendship has started to fracture; Rise is older and has become disillusioned by school and life in the neighborhood. The book opens with a funeral for another friend who was killed in a drive-by and while all the neighborhood young people take the incident to heart, Rise seems to see it differently. "He went out like a man,” says Rise after the service.“I still don’t want to get shot for nothing in a drive-by,” protests C.J. It is clear from that moment, on page four of the book, that Rise’s vision of the world and his place in it has taken a dangerous turn. In the story that follows, Jesse tries to save his friend and also to understand just how this transformation could have happened.

The most impressive thing about Autobiography is how Myers shows the tiny increments in which lives can be so dramatically changed. It’s important to understand that at the beginning these are all just kids, even if they do live in a very dangerous neighborhood. C.J. wants to play more jazz than church music, but his mom isn’t so sure; Jesse is an artist who doesn’t know what direction his art will take him; and Rise is just like any other big talking kid -- he has a lot to say, but is living life with his mother and aging grandparents pretty much like anyone else. And it’s important that the families are all present and accounted for in this book, and all achingly, desperately human. These kids aren’t abandoned crack addicts; they are just teenage boys trying to figure out what they will accomplish with their lives and how they will go about doing it. That ordinariness makes the way things fall to pieces all that much more distressing, and Myers’s amazing talent all that much more evident.

As Jesse embarks on his project to draw Rise’s life and hopefully remind him just where he has come from, Christopher Myers’s contribution to the book moves front and center. The illustrations are fantastic, both for the realistic way they portray the book’s characters but also for how effectively they reveal Jesse’s inner thoughts. The comic strips in particular express Jesse’s frustration at seeing Rise drift away for no discernible reason. And as an unlikely and apparently unstoppable gang war heats up between Jesse and his friends and the violent Diablos, Jesse’s art begins to hit a fever pitch. He has suddenly found himself in a place where a boy he barely knows is asking him to terrorize a neighborhood grocer, his own father doesn’t seem to believe that he is honestly trying to stay out of trouble, and Rise is lecturing him on the positive benefits of drug dealing. Jesse’s whole world is collapsing around him, no matter how hard he tries to hold it together. And the more he tracks Rise’s disintegration the more it becomes clear that he can not save his friend, that perhaps no on can save him. And Jesse’s frustration at not knowing how all of this could have happened so fast is palpable. This is how the world gets out of control, is what Myers is telling us, in a second, in an instant, it all can go flying apart. God, when will we ever learn?

On every level, Autobiography of My Dead Brother is a stirring and amazing novel. It is written for a young adult audience, or at least that is who it is marketed to, but adult readers will be missing out if they let this one slide by. If you have ever wondered how violence happens, or who the young people are who become involved in it, this is the book to give you all the answers. It is, in fact, the best book about friendship and loyalty and growing up that I have read in a long long time. Both Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher have crafted something magnificent here, something infinitely precious. Don’t let it slip past you, and certainly don’t let it slip past your children.

Autobiography of My Dead Brother by Walter Dean Myers, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Harper Collins
ISBN 006058291X
211 pages