Variations of a Brother War By J.A. Tyler (A Review by Ryan Werner)

Small Doggies Press

116 pgs/$12.95

Fairness, love, and war are usually dealt with in that order. This says nothing of the truths found within the inversions, the war in love and the love of fairness and how it’s only a possibility that the fairness in war may be love. There are elements to this equation that have gone missing, and their cumulative void is left to simple, deep wonderment.

What this means is that the chaotic non-constraints of war and love are the only environments in which fairness can exist.

 In Variations of a Brother War, J.A. Tyler manifests these ideas as a pair of brothers and the woman between them. Tyler sets this up in such a way that Gideon, whose alpha-crassness is offset by the sweetness he gives us in tiny increments, and Miller, whose edges are slowly revealed in spite of his forthright pansy-ass demeanor, rotate around Eliza, who plays the part of the sun: the great provider, the great destroyer.

This stacking of dualities—of trialities, really, with each character being part fairness and part love and part war—allows Tyler to create depth in small pieces. By cutting up the story and characters into three 100-word sections each on multiple topics and then pasting them back together in the vicinity of their congruent parts, a straightforward love triangle set against the backdrop of the American Civil War gains a certain spongy quality that allow it to breathe and contract and, most importantly, wander.

 “Gideon’s mother raised Gideon as a wolf. She brayed at his moon and led him in darkness to the river, to dip his paws in the water and to see the reflection of his glaring eye teeth looking back at a handsome face. Or as the younger of two boys, he was so loved for being the last that she handed him everything he wanted and Gideon grew used to taking anything he desired. Gideon liked to hold his hand over candle flames until it singed a mark in his palm. That fire was the kind of mother Gideon had.” ­– from “Gideon’s Mother” on the topic of “Mothers”

Dissecting the narrative of the book is not unlike comparing the blueprint of a building to the actual building. The topics flourish wonderfully at the end—Who Controls, Probabilities, Possibilities, Futures, Beginnings—but the order of the actions seem to be largely unimportant. Describing it as “non-chronological” gets you close, but “anti-chronological” gets you closer.

One side-effect of the order of the actions and, to a lesser degree, the order of the topics, being largely unimportant is that I’m left wondering what it would be like if, say, instead of “Cabins” coming before “Ribbons,” they were switched. Would this reversal, the flowing and the loneliness of ribbons and water coming before the internal machinations from underneath respective roofs, have any effect at all on the overall narrative? And, if so, is that a testament to the strength or the weakness of the book?

Regardless of the fact that Tyler comes far from spinning a yarn, his execution of the gut of a yarn, any yarn, is full of merit. The way he’s able to shift my empathy with each change in perspective, with each variation, if you will, is a thing of magic. I hate Gideon for his obtuseness, for his competitiveness, but I sympathize with his insecurity when the lens is moving through him. I find Eliza to be a little too hippy dippy—the plants, the water, the animals, the nature bullshit of young girls throughout time—but I love the depth of her sadness and the ways in which reaches for the nearest beautiful thing to cope. Miller is just plain too soft for war. But I’m writing a book review for the internet, so I’m not really going to judge him too harshly.

The book is most effective at the sentence level, and Tyler is right-on with most of the poetic elements he utilizes: precision, left-of-center detail, a swift cut to the crux of the biscuit.

 “After war, Gideon is a ghost and Miller is a ghost and neither of them exists for Eliza except in the wind. When she hangs her clothes on the line, when she puts the logs in the fire, when she sits on the porch in a rocking chair and waits for sun to come. If Gideon is night. If Miller is day. Eliza wants for a cloud to burst in her hands, Eliza wants for a fish to swim into her heart. A river bends because it has no choice. This is how it is for brothers at war.”­ – from “Of Family” on the topic of “Lines”

The consistent length of the verses lends a certain beauty to the style, but it often leaves little space for a scene to exist, let alone arc. As I go back and reread sections of the book for review, I realize that that is the way I truly enjoy it, step-wise and divided. Much like a Ted Leo album or a Borges collection, I love it in single servings but get lost in the whole. I know this book is better than my own personal taste is letting me admit to, and the problems I have with it—the same problems I have with Jamie Iredell’s oddly brilliant Book of Freaks­—have to do with my affinity for less-oblique narratives.

Still, now that I know that I had to build the majority of Variations of a Brother War’s momentum myself, I now also know that I’ve been a part of a glorious thing. If the construction was all on me, then the land and tools and the blueprint were all Tyler’s. And what an honorable operation it all is, to be able to work under the wing of a master architect as he lays out the constituent parts of fairness and love and war in all their ragged, endless glory.

(I’d be remiss in not mentioning the beautiful art and design of Andrew Farris, who I was previously unfamiliar with. Everything from the typeset to the layout encouraged me to not just pick the book up, but to turn page after page. This is a book worth judging by its cover.)


Ryan Werner cleans bathrooms at a Wal-Mart in the Midwest. He also plays guitar and does vocals in the sleaze rock band Legal Fingers and runs the music/literature project Our Band Could Be Your Lit.