Long before brothers started fighting in the back of the station wagon, they got off on the wrong foot in Western civilization. By the time Freud described the murderous fantasies between fathers and sons, brothers had already been deadly antagonists for millenniums. When Remus mocked his brother's wall, Romulus killed him. When Abel upstaged his brother's sacrifice, Cain slew him.
In the early 1940s, both "East of Eden" and "The Skin of Our Teeth" revived the Bible's first brothers, reenacted the murder, and won Pulitzer Prizes. Recent incarnations have been less contentious, but hardly harmonious. Wally Lamb's "I Know This Much Is True," Tim Gautreaux's "The Clearing," and Guy Vanderhaeghe's "The Last Crossing" all show men struggling to restrain their violent brothers bent on self-destruction - a kind of therapeutic reimagining of the ancient myth.
Dan Chaon's debut novel, "You Remind Me of Me," makes a fascinating addition to this list. With deep insight and a fluid style that never calls attention to its considerable beauty, he's been earning accolades for his short stories up till now; his second collection, "Among the Missing," was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2001, and "You Remind Me of Me" pulses with the emotional intensity his fans have come to expect.
The story follows the disconnected lives of two brothers, one given away for adoption at birth, the other mauled by their mother's Doberman at the age of six. Both these events - traumatic in their own ways - ricochet through a number of lives, creating a web of trajectories that tempt us to discern the direction and velocity of character. But even if you miss the stray allusion to "rosebud" from "Citizen Kane" late in the novel, it's clear that Chaon is writing about the irreducible mystery of human nature.
He contributes to that mystery considerably in the opening chapters. Each begins with a specific date - March 24, 1977; June 6, 1966; June 15, 1996 - but the characters' names are sometimes held back and their relationships to one another are scrambled in a way that frustrates our efforts to place them.
He may be presuming too much about the diligence of busy people trying to carve out 30 minutes of reading before bed. (I eventually drew several tangled genealogies on a piece of scrap paper. Chaos and consternation erupted when my daughter accidentally threw it out while setting the table.) But the fortunate readers who persist will come to see that this problem is emblematic of the challenge all these characters face as they struggle to organize their own lives, sifting through hopes and memories, visions of what they'd planned and realizations of what they've become.
Jonah was a quiet, withdrawn boy even before his mother's dog killed him one Easter season. Revived by paramedics a few minutes later, he spends the rest of his life assuming that this attack was "what set his future into motion," but that explanation becomes increasingly inadequate. Perhaps, Chaon suggests, the key lies in his severely depressed mother and the sense of gloom she shed over his childhood. Or perhaps his personality was determined by the persistent fantasy of the lost brother, the idealized sibling who could have served as an enduring friend.
In any case, Chaon is more interested in our desire to understand the harrowing gap between what we want to be and what we are. For Jonah's mother, that desire leads only to corrosive regret and self-pity. But for Jonah, permanently masked behind a thicket of scars, the dream of remaking himself remains a tantalizing possibility.
When his mother dies, Jonah discards every possession, every remnant of his past, and sets out for a new city armed only with a copy of "The Fifteen Steps on the Ladder of Success." Chaon describes this quest with poignancy and muffled wit. Jonah's habit of making up memories, designing for himself a more usable past, seems oddly touching. You don't have to be a fellow loser (or do you?) to sympathize with his practice of overanticipating events and rehearsing conversations before they take place. He draws up lists of his meager good qualities, he practices friendly gestures in the mirror, he watches happy people and imagines what it would be like to be them.
His physical condition is peculiar and his mental state is a weird mixture of grief and optimism, but Chaon's portrayal of this hopeful loner strikes notes that will resonate with anyone who hankers for a new beginning, who vacillates between bouts of confidence and despair. "The true terror," Jonah thinks, "the true mystery of life, is not that we were all going to die, but ... that we once didn't exist, and then, through no fault of our own, we had to."
His plan to remake himself depends on finding his older brother, the baby his mother spent her life mourning. We meet Troy long before Jonah does, first as a sweet adolescent slipping into drug addiction, then as an anxious father struggling to drop the habit and regain custody of his son. Unlike Jonah, Troy remains far less definite about the prime cause of his troubles, but he's just as determined to change his direction, to make something of himself.
The eventual contact between these two brothers arrives in a fascinating, long-delayed crisis, fraught with expectations that Troy can't possibly satisfy for Jonah. The ghastly looking stranger who imagines the benefits of instant fraternity is bound to be disappointed, but Jonah has invested so much psychic energy in this great hope that he loses touch with reality rather than let go of his dream.
Chaon sinks gently and quietly into these sad lives, but moments of real fright spike through his narrative, and the poignancy of Jonah's desire for connection shifts ominously toward much darker tones. Fortunately, this is an author of deep compassion. Not all his characters attain the insight they need to fathom their hopes and fears, but a few do, and his readers will come closer to understanding their own.
• Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments about the book section to Ron Charles.