Read This: 'The Lives of Brian Cathcart'

by Brendan I. Koerner

In response to Ta-Nehisi's introductory post yesterday, a treasured commenter brought up the idea of doing a non-fiction recommendation thread this week. As fate would have it, I've long been planning to use this space to champion a few of my favorite off-the-radar non-fiction gems. Let me now start doing so in such a way that y'all will hopefully be inspired to join in the exercise.

Late in my own narrative non-fiction yarn, Now the Hell Will Start, I make a half-hearted attempt to tackle what I term a "riddle of existence": how people from similar circumstances, even the same families, often end up walking such different paths through life. The tale that inspired me to go on that brief philosophical tangent was "The Lives of Brian Cathcart," published in Granta 85. (There's a truncated version here, though I highly, highly recommended reading the whole shebang.) It is written by a man who usually makes his living exploring science, but in this instance decided to investigate a monstrous crime. The lede just slays me—one of the most haunting I've ever had the good fortune to read:

My name is Brian Cathcart. I grew up mainly in Northern Ireland. My father was headmaster of a secondary school and my mother taught English. I come from Protestant stock, though I have no religion myself. I studied history at university. I remember the Troubles starting, the war in Biafra, the Beatles.

His name was Brian Cathcart. He grew up in Northern Ireland. His father was headmaster of a secondary school and his mother taught English. He came from Protestant stock, though he had no religion himself. He studied history at university. He remembered the Troubles starting, the war in Biafra, the Beatles.

Two Brian Cathcarts, then: lucky boys, with their clever parents and their educations, both of them raised on what was the privileged side of Northern Ireland's communal divide. What is the difference between them? Chiefly, now, that the second one is dead. Do you ever look at a drunken man on the street, swaying and shabby, with no focus to his eyes and a can of lager in his hand, and think to yourself: why him, why me?

I won't give away the rest of the story, except to say that it affected me so deeply that I actually sought out Cathcart and dropped him an adoring e-mail. His gracious response gave me a buzz akin to that of a Reagan-era NKOTB fan receiving a handwritten note from Jordan Knight.

So, now let me open it to the throng: Who can recommend some excellent narrative non-fiction that tackles the question of how fates diverge? The Other Wes Moore is a natural here, and it's on my to-read list for an upcoming trip out West. But suggestions certainly needn't follow the "follow your doppelganger" model of both that book and "The Lives of Brian Cathcart." Have at it, splendid commentariat.