(1984) is one of John Edgar Wideman's two major works of nonfiction; the other is Fatheralong (1994). Of Wideman's numerous books, it is Brothers and Keepers for which he is probably best known to the general reading public. Described by Wideman as a personal essay about his younger brother Robby and himself, it deals with the first of two tragic events in the author's life: Robby's imprisonment for his involvement in a crime, which Wideman previously had given fictional treatment in his novel Hiding Place (1981). (The second tragedy, the conviction and imprisonment for murder of Wideman's youngest son, is dealt with somewhat obliquely in Wideman's novel Philadelphia Fire, 1990, and in “Father Stories,” the final piece in Fatheralong.)
One question Wideman wrestles with in the book—and that the reader must wrestle with also—is how can two brothers raised in the same environment (the black neighborhood of Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, locale of the majority of Wideman's fiction) end up having such radically different lives: one a Rhodes Scholar, college professor, and acclaimed author, the other a drug addict with dreams of being a big-time dealer who now is serving a life sentence? This stark polarity—the middle-class professional versus the “gangsta”—is something Wideman attempts to explore and deconstruct in his narrative. It isn’t that he fails to recognize that he and his brother are different; rather, since they shared the same family upbringing, the important thing for Wideman is, given the similarities between Robby and himself, what has created the gulf between them? For all his brotherly concern, Wideman cannot absolve Robby from responsibility for the choices he and many other young black men like him have made, yet he is eloquent in evoking the forces in our society that have conspired to distort and limit those choices.
Reviewers as divergent as Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and Ishmael Reed have found the book's undoubted strengths to be the gripping quality of the story it tells and the skillful interplay between the two quite distinct voices of Wideman and his younger brother.
Wideman has reiterated in several interviews that all of his books are about family—its intricacies, agonies, and strengths. And the troubles and triumphs of a particular family—Wideman's own, rendered in fact and in fiction—are clearly related to the problems and promises of that extended family called the community, the nation. In a time of much rhetorical obeisance to “family values,” a book like Brothers and Keepers reminds us that the stresses of the nuclear family and those of the national family are mutually interlocked, and that being your brother's keeper in the traditional sense may be one way to avoid his being “caged” by keepers of quite another sort.
Brothers and Keepers is part of the long tradition of tale-telling, self-discovery, and social arraignment that constitutes African American autobiography. Like Nathan McCall's Makes Me Wanna Holler (1994) and Brent Staples's Parallel Time (1994), Wideman's book continues the story of flight begun in the slave narratives into a present still tormented by the unresolved legacies of “race,” where even those black Americans who can be said to have “made it” nevertheless see themselves as fugitives.