‘This River’ Author Bares Family Wounds

(from L) Bestselling author James Brown meets a fan at Cafe Aroma

By Marcia E. Gawecki

When he was signing books afterwards, you couldn’t help but notice the large veins in his muscled arms. They stood out like a river’s arbitraries and pituitaries. Then you noticed his eyes, dark and knowing. Like someone who has seen a lot, and not necessarily good stuff. You earn those kinds of eyes.

On Thursday night, July 30, bestselling author James Brown read from his new book, “This River,” on the deck at Cafe Aroma. It was the seventh installment of the popular Idyllwild Author Series, but the first at this venue.

After his introduction by moderator Eduardo Santiago, James said that he came to Idyllwild because of Frank Ferro (Cafe Aroma’s manager/owner). They have been friends for a long time.

“I came because of his nice smile on the poster,” admitted Anna Ancheta, a youth orchestra conductor from Mountain Center.

Others were there because they’ve read his many books, including “LA Diaries.” They mingled in with the diners on the deck, who were chatting at first, but became captivated when James Brown started reading from his latest book, “This River.”

James described the Chetko River, located in Oregon, about 800 miles from his home in Southern California. He talked about fishing with his three boys for the first time, and hearing his father’s voice in his head.

“It reminded me a lot of ‘Big Two Rivers,’ by Hemingway,” Anna added. “Some rivers speak to people.”

Yet, James’ unassuming title, “This River,” doesn’t fully prepare the reader for what lay bare inside. It’s a memoir about James’ dysfunctional family life, his mentally ill mother, and alcoholic father, brother and sister, all of whom committed suicide. In the book, James describes how he put his brother’s ashes into the Chetko River, by wading waist deep and releasing them in handfuls.

“Of course, I didn’t file a permit to release my brother’s ashes,” James read. “This is a river of dreams, and stories of his childhood.”

He then closed his eyes and prayed to no one in particular. He was grateful for having known his brother, Barry, a talented Hollywood actor.

Eduardo Santiago introduces James Brown on Cafe Aroma's deck with bright banners

“Many of you may have known Barry from the film, ‘Daisy Miller,'” Eduardo said. “He had a promising career and was headed for the likes of James Franco.”

According to the IMDb web site, Barry Brown, who died at age 27, was also an author and playwright. Peter Bogdanovich praised Brown’s contribution to the film, describing him as “the only American actor you can believe ever read a book.”

“He was enormously talented. He had an IQ of 170, which includes only about 150,000 people in the world,” James said.”But he was an alcoholic, and when he died, he didn’t kill Barry; he killed the drunk.”

“I’m the last one standing,” James said.

In one evening, James Brown laid bare his own troubled life, including his struggles with drugs and alcohol.

“You may ask me if writing this book was cathartic,” James said. “It wasn’t. I didn’t want to return to those dark places, but they were the most defining moments that shaped my character. I knew that I had to get through it or I wouldn’t write another book.”

Eduardo said that James’ mother also had her share of troubles.

“She committed arson and homicide, but went to jail for tax evasion,” James said.

Yet, he nursed her in her old age, after a series of strokes.

“There was nothing to be afraid of anymore,” James said. “She was old and frail. But we talked and I got to know her better.”

“If you were an alcoholic, how do you know that you’re recording it as it really was?” asked one audience member.

Audience members and diners listen intently to James Brown read from his new book, "This River"

“I can’t recall things that happened 20 years ago sober,” James said. “But in memoir writing, there’s always a distortion, but we write to the best of our abilities. I like to think of it as ‘an emotional truth.'”

A waiter from Cafe Aroma, who had read James’ “LA Diaries”, asked him about forgiveness.

James said that he didn’t want his books to be negative, but redeeming.

“I have to learn to forgive myself for my bad behavior,” James said. “And forgive my brother and sister for taking their own lives. That way, I can love them more fully.”

Afterwards, Anna jumped up from her chair to purchase “This River.” B’s Books, which also sponsors the author series, had them available for sale. Some of the diners added the book to their bill.

“He’s a gracious man with a large vision,” Anna said. “His imagery is just beautiful.”

Next up in the Idyllwild Author Series will be “Deus Ex Machina” by Andrew Foster Altschul on Sunday, July 3rd at 2 p.m. at B’s Mountain of Books. Andrew lived in Idyllwild for some time, but he still returns every summer with his family.

“His new book is called, ‘Deus Ex Machina.'” Eduardo said. “It’s a fancy title for a fabulous novel about the effects of reality television on our culture.”

For more information, visit www.eduardosantiago.com or call B’s Books at (951) 659-5018.

Copyright 2011 Idyllwild Me. All rights reserved.

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