Even though I was finishing up Tricks Every Boy Can Do by Paul Buchanan at the same time my stepson, a senior in high school, received his assignment to read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, I nearly missed the parallels of the two brother narratives. Only on reflection did I realize that both stories are about brothers, and both contain one brother who torments the other. Also in both stories, the two brothers fall for the same woman and find themselves in paternity disputes over the child being carried by their mutual lover. Many other similarities run throughout both books.
But if I initially missed the connection, it’s likely because Tricks Every Boy Can Do is as much about the women in Alvie’s and Frankie’s lives as it is about the brothers.
The book begins with Rose, a single mother, exiled in her own Depression-era community, lonely and trying to do right by her two sons. She actually has three children, triplets, but the third, a daughter, died during childbirth. Even though the boys look identical, they are nothing alike, and never will be. Rose knew from an early age that Alvie would always need to be cared for; he’s weaker and more studious. He’s also a worrier, easily tricked and deceived by his brother. Rose knew Frankie, on the other hand—brash and manipulative and strong—would always take care of himself. From the time they were born, this was how Rose treated her sons.
We see this in the opening scene when Rose receives a call from the boys’ school explaining there has been an incident with a broken window. The school secretary phones Rose at work and says it was definitely her son. “‘Are you sure it was Frankie?’ Rose said. Her son, she suspected, had become the default defendant when anything at school was broken or stolen or set on fire or—in one case—coated with Vaseline.” But as it turns out, they haven’t accused Frankie but Alvie. And Rose is incredulous. “Alvie broke a window?” Rose asks. And then again, “Alvie? Alvie Ferrell?” She insists: “It’s Frankie. He’s pretending to be his brother again. Can you just put him on the phone a minute?” But when the secretary tells her that he’s crying and won’t stop, Rose immediately knows it really is Alvie. “I’ll be right there,” she says, and proceeds with the first of several rescues in the book.
The second woman we meet is the ghost of baby Doris, the third triplet. From an early age, Alvie senses her presence in their home. He imagines her growing up alongside him and Frankie, but he rarely mentions to anyone that she’s there. “Her presence—or, perhaps more accurately, her absence—seemed to lurk everywhere; a tingling void in the shape of a growing girl.” The animosity between the two brothers seems to be the primary reason Alvie is so determined to know and feel Doris’s presence in their home. Frankie is so different from Alvie, the two can hardly be in the same room; Doris, however, makes Alvie feel like he’s home.
As they grow older, though, he begins to feel that Doris, even though dead, may actually be outgrowing him. “Baby Doris’s presence began to take on a womanly yaw. Their mother’s gold chains and clip-on earrings would show up in the hearth or fallen into the gap between the radio and wall, or the air might faintly fill with the scent of a ghostly menarche. It was as if she were leaving both boys behind, as Alvie had seen other sisters do, in her journey toward some phantasmal womanhood.” That may be why he he attempts to contact Doris through a self-important “medium”—a neighbor girl named Lydia who is defensive about her occult powers—for which Frankie mocks him to no end. Oddly, Doris does seem to make an appearance, as if even from the grave she is there to stick up for Alvie. Despite his chiding, Frankie seems to understand this, too; somehow all the women in his life prefer Alvie to him.
We are reintroduced to Lydia when Frankie comes home from serving in World War II and Alvie and Lydia are now a couple. Like Rose, Lydia has become Alvie’s protector—as much from Frankie as anything else—and sees Frankie as a loner, looking out only for himself. It’s as if the three pick up where the seance left off: Lydia believing she possesses powers others can’t understand, and Frankie and Alvie even more rivalrous now that Frankie has reentered the picture. The contention between brothers seems to peak shortly after Frankie returns home, and Alvie and Lydia talk with him about their desire to live in Rose’s house once they get married.
“‘So I’m supposed to wander off somewhere so you two can play house?’ Frankie said. ‘You know I have as much right to this house as you do, Alvie.’ He looked at Lydia. ‘And a hell of a lot more than some people.’
“‘You’ll get your share of whatever’s coming to you,’ Alvie said. ‘We’ll buy the place from Rose.’ Alvie slumped a little in his chair, like he was relieved to have accomplished the assignment Lydia had given him.”
Also like Rose, however, what Lydia really wants is for someone to look out for her. This becomes more apparent as Rose develops early onset dementia, likely Alzheimer’s (though that word is not used because of the author’s staunch adherence to the historical setting of the story). Alvie, Lydia, and Frankie begin to work together to take care of her. In the process, the animosity between Lydia and Frankie seems to disappear. Lydia begins to defend Frankie’s decisions to Alvie, they share inside jokes, and eventually they begin having an affair.
Alvie suspects something is going on between his fiancé and brother when Lydia mentions getting some photos from Frankie. The two had to have been together when Alvie wasn’t present. Then, Alvie receives a warning about the affair before he actually discovers it, a warning from his demented mother, who watches Frankie and Lydia leave her nursing home room one day and exclaims, “Love birds. Those two are so sweet on each other.” When Alvie tries to correct her, she insists, “Your sister thinks so, too.” Apparently Doris also communicates with Rose, or at least that’s what Rose says during the fog of one of her episodes.
When Alvie eventually finds out for sure about the affair, Lydia chooses to stay with him rather than Frankie, since the two are now engaged. Because of Lydia’s choice, however, Frankie leaves town and exiles himself from his brother, his mother, and the woman he loves. Both women are heartbroken, though Rose has few clear moments now. And Lydia realizes that her own need to take care of Alvie has kept Frankie from loving and caring for her in his own way. She has chosen Alvie, but Frankie’s absence makes her marriage almost unbearable.
The fourth woman we meet in Tricks Every Boy Can Do is Fat Sadie, an obese bar owner and lounge singer who takes the exiled Frankie in as her bouncer, then bartender, and eventually her caregiver when she discovers she is dying. Fat Sadie is the first woman to let Frankie take care of her, probably because she is the first woman he loves who doesn’t love Alvie more. Their love is platonic, though, and he never stops longing for Lydia. Eventually, Frankie sees his opportunity to go home and fight for the woman he loves, though it could mean leaving behind the successful life he built for himself away from his family.
When Frankie comes back to town, he and Lydia end up back together, but only briefly. An unexpected pregnancy, however, causes Lydia to believe that Frankie, not Alvie, is the father. Alvie, however, knows the truth—that a childhood case of the mumps left Frankie impotent—and decides to fight for his wife.
As with other brother narratives, we expect this story to transform into a tragedy: two brothers fighting it out to the end. In the original brother narrative in the book of Genesis, Cain murders Abel in a fit of rage and jealousy. The envy and rivalry of Steinbeck’s Cal and Aron in East of Eden destroy not only the brothers’ lives, but their parents and all those who encounter them. But that’s not the case for Frankie and Alvie. Before Alvie can restake his claim for his wife, Doris sends him another message. He thinks Doris is leading him back to his wife, and as he’s always done, he lets one of the women in his life tell him what to do. But eventually, Alvie realizes that the decision is Lydia’s, not his. He can’t, or at least shouldn’t try to, force her to come back.
“Lydia had an agonizing choice to make, and in this moment Alvie knew he had the power to make that decision infinitely harder for her and its consequences more painful for everyone.
Or he could give her this: He could simply turn and descend the stairs. He could allow her to sort things out in her own flawed and human way.
Whatever she decided, he and Frankie and Lydia would find their way together; that much Alvie understood. The three of them were bound by blood and history. Their future, whatever it held, was something they’d go through together.
For the first time, Alvie realizes that he doesn’t need Rose or Lydia or even Doris to take care of him. In the end, it is Alvie’s goodness and maturity in letting Lydia go, in taking care of her rather than the other way around, that offer hope in this story. Suddenly, the brotherly competition loses its edge. There’s no more revenge and bitterness. Instead, Alvie accepts his fate and moves forward, even while maintaining his relationship with his brother.
Tricks Every Boy Can Do falls solidly in the tradition of brother narratives, but it stands apart with its decency and humanity. “How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!” David writes in Psalm 133. For Buchanan’s Alvie and Frankie, it’s a hard-fought but true reality indeed.
Tricks Every Boy can Do by Paul Buchanan is published by Harvard Square Editions.