In Bernard Malamud's novel God's Grace, a modern rewriting of the biblical flood story, the hero, when asked where stories come from, says, "from other stories." Robert Coover's first collection of short stories, Pricksongs and Descants, from which "The Brother" is taken, consists of a number of stories based on other stories--fairy tales, legends, folktales--all of which are made more earthy and "real" than their mythic originals.
What may have given Coover the idea for this story is the line in Genesis, "This is the story of Noah" and the restrained and objective Hebraic style of the biblical story of cataclysm. For "The Brother" is the story of Noah's brother, told by him in a folksy, working-man fashion. Whereas Noah is less than human in his single-minded dedication to following God's command, the brother is just an ordinary guy who loves his wife and tries to support his family. Whereas God fills the life of Noah, the deity is merely part of the everyday language of the brother.
Coover's treatment of the conflict between the sacred and the profane is thus quite different from Herbert Gold's "Susanna at the Beach." There is something sympathetic and real about the voice we hear in this story, certainly nothing of the corruption suggested in the biblical story that made God destroy everyone except Noah and his wife and children.
The scene in which the brother and his wife drink wine and laugh at Noah's foolishness is, rather than a harsh Hebraic criticism of the earthly, a modern celebration of the real and the earthy. As a result, when the brother is turned away from the ark by Noah and finds his wife drowned, our reaction is quite different than our reaction to the biblical story may be.
Although Noah follows the "letter" of God's command that he should take only his sons and their wives with him on the ark, his refusal to follow the "spirit" of brotherhood and save his brother and his pregnant wife suggests intolerable self-righteousness. What Coover has done is transform the abstraction of what Genesis calls corrupt humanity into the ordinarily human. As a result, instead of rejoicing that such men as Noah, the one blameless man of his time, survived the flood, we may regret that such men as his brother did not.
Tomorrow: Grace Paley's "Conversation with My Father"