WMU News

WMU writer pens memoir of brother's life and death

March 15, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- In 1985, an explosion of a large steam line at the Mohave Generating Station in Arizona rocked the life of writer J.D. Dolan. The explosion fatally injured his only brother, John, with whom he had not spoken in five years. That crisis and the story of his and his brother's lives together is the focus of a new memoir by Dolan to be published by Alfred A. Knopf and released to bookstores nationwide this month.

"Phoenix, A Brother's Life," is a personal history of the complications and failures of the Dolan family, as told through the context of the family's struggles to cope with their son and brother who lays dying in the burn unit of a Phoenix hospital. Dolan, an assistant professor of English at Western Michigan University, says he chose to write of such an intimate incident in order to stop avoiding the pain and truths behind the story.

"To my mind, the point of writing something is to get to the deeper truths, not to avoid them. I was avoiding them," he says. "The whole thing had been haunting me for years. A few years ago I wrote a short nonfiction piece about my brother's death, but what I came up with was sketchy at best. It didn't begin to make sense of his death or what it meant to me or what he meant to me. It also didn't make sense of his life, or our lives together and apart. So I decided to set down the full story."

A work of non-fiction, "Phoenix" is Dolan's first book. His work has appeared in Esquire and The Nation, and his story, "Mood Music," was featured in "New Stories from the South: The Year's Best 1996." In promotion of "Phoenix," he will embark on a 38-city national driving tour at the end of March.

Dolan has been writing for 15 years, at times supporting himself as a bartender, truck driver and custodian. He pursued writing after spending a number of years working in the music industry as a roadie and road manager for performers including Jackson Browne, Kenny Loggins and Cher. He quit the music business and moved to New York City to study writing, eventually attending graduate school at Syracuse University and working under the tutelage of author Tobias Wolff.

It was during his life in rock n' roll that Dolan's brother stopped speaking to him, a rift that lasted until John's death in 1985. It was an especially painful silence, as Dolan had idolized the older sibling who taught him to fish and shoot and ride motorcycles.

"I was young and flighty and unavailable to him as a brother or a friend. I was traveling on the road and living the high life, or low life, in Hollywood," Dolan remembers. "At about the same time I got sick of the life I was living, my brother decided he'd also gotten sick of the life I was living. That's when he stopped talking to me."

Dolan says that from his story comes a message that people should make an effort to stay connected with the people they love.

"My brother didn't talk to me for five years and then -- boom-- he was dying in a burn unit in Phoenix. Five years was too long. He shouldn't have let it happen. I shouldn't have let that happen," he says. "I wish I hadn't gone along with his silence."

During his driving tour, Dolan will present readings at four Michigan locations and in South Bend, Ind. The dates, places and times of those readings are:

Kalamazoo: 8:30 p.m. Monday, March 27, 3512 Knauss Hall, Western Michigan University, as part of the Department of English's winter reading series. A reception will follow on the 10th floor of Sprau Tower.

Ann Arbor: 8 p.m. Wednesday, March 29, Shaman Drum, 311-315 S. State St.

Portage: 7 p.m. Thursday, March 30, Portage District Library, 300 Library.

East Lansing: Monday, April 3, Michigan State University, East Lansing, location and time to be announced.

South Bend: Monday, April 10, the University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Ind., location and time to be announced.

"Phoenix, A Brother's Life," will be available in local bookstores, including Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Athena Book Shop, John Rollins Books and Music, and the WMU Bookstore in the Bernhard Center.

Media contact: Marie Lee, 616 387-8400, marie.lee@wmich.edu

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