I Had a Brother Once: A Poem, A Memoir

I Had a Brother Once: A Poem, A Memoir

by Adam Mansbach


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Notes From Your Bookseller

If you know Adam Mansbach from his snarky kid’s parody, Go The F**k to Sleep, be prepared to move and be moved in another direction. Whether parody or a deep and rewarding dive into personal tragedy, Mansbach has always kept family as a source of inspiration. For the parody, trying to get his young son to sleep. Here, a meditation on his late brother. It is not uncommon to find that the funniest person in the room feels most deeply. Adam Mansbach’s latest is proof.

A brilliant, genre-defying work—both memoir and epic poem—about the struggle for wisdom, grace, and ritual in the face of unspeakable loss

“A bruised and brave love letter from a brother right here to a brother now gone . . . a soaring, unblinking gaze into the meaning of life itself.”—Marlon James, author of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

my father said david has taken his own life

Adam is in the middle of his own busy life, and approaching a career high in the form of a #1 New York Times bestselling book—when these words from his father open a chasm beneath his feet. I Had a Brother Once is the story of everything that comes after. In the shadow of David’s inexplicable death, Adam is forced to re-remember a brother he thought he knew and to reckon with a ghost, confronting his unsettled family history, his distant relationship with tradition and faith, and his desperate need to understand an event that always slides just out of his grasp. This is an expansive and deeply thoughtful poetic meditation on loss and a raw, darkly funny, human story of trying to create a ritual—of remembrance, mourning, forgiveness, and acceptance—where once there was a life.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593134795
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/13/2021
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 432,259
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Adam Mansbach is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Go the F**k to Sleep, the novels Rage Is Back, Angry Black White Boy, and The End of the Jews (winner of the California Book Award), and a dozen other books, most recently the bestselling A Field Guide to the Jewish People, co-written with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel. Mansbach wrote the award-winning screenplay for the Netflix Original Barry, and his next feature film, Super High, starring Andy Samberg, Craig Robinson, and Common, is forthcoming from New Line. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Esquire, The Believer, and The Guardian and on This American Life, The Moth, and All Things Considered.

Read an Excerpt

first of all i never usually stayed out past midnight or even ten,
but i was feeling myself that night.
something was ending
& it was time to celebrate.
my friend emery had 
reserved the back room of a center city lounge so we could spin some records for the first &
final time before i packed up the rented carriage house &
u-hauled out of town.
one year in philly had sprawled into two &
i’d been digging weekly that whole time at this spot called beautiful world & another called milkcrate, plus mark’s spot, which didn’t have a name, & then there was another out past bryn mawr that i found by accident,
a place the local deejays had long written off as trash, except i happened to fall through just as a new collection came up from the basement, had not even been filed yet, all holy grail joints—the del jones record, a mint original headless heroes of the apocalypse lp,
the bo diddley with the break, the rhetta hughes,
the johnny houston, some forty pieces & nothing stickered past eight bucks.
it’s bound to happen if you dig long & doggedly enough, but only about once per decade. my last two had been waterville maine in ninety-six & the jamaican lady i met outside academy records in manhattan double parked on twelfth street,
truck sagging with roots reggae. there were two guys working that day, a bald headed whiteboy & a dread,
& the wrong one jogged out.
he took a quick flip through
& passed. i slid up & i asked if i could look, ended up jumping in the shotgun seat
& driving back up to the bronx to see what she had left at home.
that was two thousand two or possibly oh-three
& now it was may twenty-eight two thousand eleven. i’d amassed two crates, one for each year of my expiring university appointment, &
barely listened to a lot of it myself; all i had at the house was a portable turntable emery had let me hold, & all my three year old wanted to hear was the dixie cups crooning about their trip to the chapel of love, maybe because her mother & i were not married ourselves.
i had not spun out since leaving california, &
music always sounds different when you are rocking for
a room, studying the way each song hits. deejaying is the art of making people hear what you do. each record transforms the crowd
& each crowd the record.
i invited my grad students
& most of them came. it was a small mfa program,
tightknit, with little of the pettiness or gamesmanship i recalled from my own.
after workshop we often went for drinks, a motorcade of hatchbacks & tin cans cruising four blocks to the tavern near campus because walking even that far was considered foolhardy in camden at night. one bar for an entire university was one too few, meant i risked seeing my undergrads drunk, but it was no worse than running into them while i was lifting weights at the school gym, & for the most part we were all adept at

not getting in each other’s way, like housemates sharing a kitchen.
somebody took a flick of me behind the wheels that night, probably leslie.
my left hand is pressed to the wax, fingertips backcuing the funky little drumfill at the top of hit or miss, right hand a jutting peace sign,
elbow cocked, arms tan,
emery grinning beside me.
that was one of the last records i played, which means it was about twelve thirty & might even be after the first call from my father,
the one i ignored, straight cognitive dissonance, there was no earthly reason he would call that late &
i was in the middle of my set, no one was sick or frail, my last living grandparent was already dead. i told myself he must have dialed by mistake in his car, home bound from the newspaper after writing the first headline the greater boston area would see tomorrow when they freed the globe from its plastic sheath, tipped their coffee mugs mouthward, destroyed the symmetry of their donuts.
but five minutes later he called again & this time i picked up, cupping a palm over my open ear to blunt
 the funk booming behind.
i still didn’t think anything was wrong. in fact, i remember or think i remember being slightly annoyed, in the belief that this call was a frivolous intrusion, which makes so little sense that perhaps i knew better & was frightened enough to erect this cardboard buttress.
my father said i’ve put this off as long as possible

that’s not what he said.
i mean me. i would live here in this preamble forever. rework it. fold in new ingredients. knead it till the gluten breaks. yammer on about records. tell some jokes. have i mentioned that on this night & for the six weeks beforehand a book i had written that did not yet technically exist,
could not be held in hands till june, was somehow outselling every other book in the world?

there was almost certainly a split second when i convinced myself my father was calling about that,
jubilant with some new tidbit that had dropped into his newsroom off the a.p.
wire, additional victims claimed by this viral sensation of mine. we could talk about the book. i could tell you a few stories about stories,
flip a little wordplay, we could warm up with some improv games. it has been eight f***ing years & i have written everything but this.

my father said david has taken his own life
& i answered as if i didn’t understand or hadn’t heard.
my reply was what? & he repeated it. there is plenty to regret & perhaps this is insignificant but i wish i had not made him say it to me twice.

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