"The Rich Brother"
"The Rich Brother," the last story in Back in the World, anchors the book in one of Wolff's more persistent themes: the obligation of one person to another. Indeed, in this story the actual situation between two brothers of opposite character illustrates the ancient precept that one is surely another's keeper. Wolff renovates the biblical parable of Cain and Abel, diverting it from its usual course of bloodshed and banishment. In several stories in Back in the World, a character wrestles with egotistical self-gratification in a struggle to extend him- or herself outside that confining carapace. Often this act of moving away from self results in a crucial, liberating shift of values or the recouping of lost or obscured ones. In this way, "The Rich Brother"connects with the first story, "Coming Attractions," to illuminate the idea. There the troubled teenager is finally able to overcome her self-absorption by plunging into an icy pool to retrieve a bicycle for her younger brother.
Pete, the rich brother, is a successful California realtor, somewhat like Russell in "The Poor Are Always with Us." But Pete is Russell a few years later, a bit softer and more willing to change. He is also like Glen in"Passengers," as Pete, too, will be affected by another person along for the ride. In fact, this is not only the story of Pete's revelation concerning his responsibilities toward his brother, but it is the story of Pete's salvation. For Wolff, the accumulation of material wealth deadens the soul. When Father Leo of "The Missing Person" ministers to Sandra, a lost soul, he redeems himself. For Jerry, the confidence man consumed with greed for riches, it is too late.
"The Rich Brother" is a simple moral tale. "There were two brothers, Pete and Donald" (Back, 199), Wolff begins. And the two brothers represent polar opposites. Pete is comfortable in his materialism; Donald is thrashing about in his spiritual dilemma. He is a troubled character,...