By John Vernon

Houghton Mifflin. 272 pp. $23

Reviewed by Greg Varner

Until John Vernon's reclusive brother Paul died, no one knew the bizarre contours of his life. Vernon's elegiac work, A Book of Reasons, is the author's attempt to fathom his mysterious brother's existence.

In an act of imaginative sympathy, Vernon tries to understand why his brother was so lonely and how his house came to be so astonishingly full of garbage and squalor. But the book is also a portrait of the human mind trying to regain a sense of normality in extremely disturbing circumstances. Caught in this act, the mind tries to bring disconnected facts and aspects of experience together. The erudite Vernon calls on an immense fund of learning to integrate Paul's odd life into a sensible overall view of the world and its history. Thus, A Book of Reasons is both a meditation on a lost sibling and a wide-ranging essay on such seemingly disparate topics as tools, the circulatory system and the history of the thermometer, among many others.

Like the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, which Vernon frequently cites, A Book of Reasons is an omnibus. Each topic in the book, however, fits organically into the text, being expertly woven together with the surrounding subject matter. A consideration of Paul's embalmed body at the funeral home leads seamlessly to the story of pioneer American embalmer Thomas Holmes, active at the time of the Civil War. Holmes kept a collection of corpses in his closets and cellar, Vernon notes, adding, "The head and shoulders of a fourteen-year-old girl sat on his living room table."

The more time readers spend examining the cabinet of wonders Vernon has assembled in this book, the less odd his brother seems -- and that is precisely the point, or a part of it. Still, Vernon is at pains to distance himself from his brother's abnormality, even as he questions the very notion of normality. Showing his late brother's filthy house to a pair of strangers, Vernon reports, "I was like them, I made myself think not like Paul. I was normal, like them, though I didn't even know them." Anyone who has ever been ashamed of a sibling is likely to find this book especially affecting.

The act of distancing oneself from one's kin is a symbolic murder, and Vernon deftly weaves the story of Cain and Abel throughout his text. Vernon suggests that "the biblical myth compresses a slow and erratic history" of human progress in domesticating the environment. "Cain murdered his brother, who lived with the animals, then built the first city to wall out savagery -- that is, to divide himself and his kin from their own animal bodies."

The fratricidal impulse to which Vernon gives vent is balanced by the opposite and more powerful urge to resurrect and redeem his fallen brother. On behalf of Paul (and, by extension, of other lonely misfits), Vernon asserts that "even the least of human beings also leaves his mark upon others, and so upon the universe." But this beautifully written book never descends to the level of homily. There is real philosophical searching and genuine agony in these pages. "Perhaps the souls of some people are small, like their hands," he writes. "It could be that some of us are dragged into the world like nets dragged onto shore with just a handful of fish. Or are souls, like legal rights, inadmissible of quantity?"

A Book of Reasons is stuffed with sharply observed descriptive details: An undertaker enters a room "spilling forward like a pot of spaghetti," and stars come out in "a storm of electric popcorn." The dust floating through Paul's house "colored the light yellow and brown and made the place feel underwater, like a giant cup of tea whose bag had ripped open." Encounters with gas station attendants, retail clerks and others are rendered with a novelist's skill.

Ultimately, Vernon himself is the subject of this book, as he implicitly admits: "And what did I know about Paul's inner life and its richness or poverty? Nothing, really." In the end, all he can say to justify, if not explain, his brother's lonely life boils down to this simple assertion: "He had a decent heart."

Greg Varner is arts editor of the Washington Blade.