Pete: Loyal to a Fault “The Rich Brother,” by Tobias Wolff is the story of two brothers that from all accounts couldn’t be more different. Pete, the elder brother, is the epitome of the American Dream. He has worked hard and become an entrepreneur, has a wife and kids, and even brags about an ocean view from his home. Donald is completely opposite. He is for the most part unemployed, and although he is a spiritual person, he has been unable to find the right fit for his spirituality and bounced from religion to religion. The Rich Brother,” begins at the end of Donald’s most recent search for spirituality when he must call his brother, Pete, knowing that Pete cannot deny his brother’s need for help yet again, and asks to be picked up from the communal farm where he had been living. Throughout the story the reader sees numerous examples of Pete’s sense of responsibility toward his brother, his love and his dedication for family; however, Pete’s dominant characteristic is that he is loyal to a fault, making him an enabler of his brother’s childish ways at the same time allowing himself to be taken advantage of.
The first evidence the reader has of Pete’s loyalty to his family and Donald occurs within the first few paragraphs when the reader finds out that after Donald fails to find his way living in an Ashram as a Hindu, Pete paid his extensive medical bills from an undiagnosed case of hepatitis. As adults in the “real world,” we are expect to take responsibility for our own actions by both learning from a less than ideal life experience and paying back a debt, whether through finances or with a change in future behavior.
Donald doesn’t see it that way though, and appears to have no sense of the value of money and how tough it was for Pete to earn it. He also lacks the physical capability to pay his brother back because before Pete is even finished paying off Donald’s bills he has found Christianity and joined a pentecostal community and begun to speak his new truth in tongues. Donald knows that Pete will again bail him out the next time as he had done before.
It is just a bit further into the story that we see Pete allow his loyalty to open himself up again to be taken advantage of when Donald demonstrates his lack of life skills, affecting the quality of life for others on the farm. This results in his being asked to leave the farm. Rather than work things out for himself, Donald calls Pete, knowing he can count on his brother for assistance to out of Paso Robles. It is no surprise that Pete’s immediate response is to state that his brother will come live with his wife and family while Donald gets on his feet.
Additionally, Pete ends up driving a number of hours from Santa Cruz to physically pick his brother up because past experiences in loaning money to Donald and that of the Ashram in Berkeley, have taught Pete that simply giving Donald money is a no win situation. Donald’s non-existent life skills combined with Pete’s inability to create boundaries with his brother by saying, “no” is just another occurrence of Pete believing he is helping even though, it may not be the right thing to do for Donald in the long term.
Again and again Pete’s unrelenting loyalty removes any need for Donald to fully act like an adult. Upon arriving at the gas station, Donald immediately requests money for food he has purchased, food he has consumed knowing he is unable to pay for it. Without a second thought Pete opens his wallet and produces $100, far more money than is actually owed. When Donald tries to give some of it back to his brother, Pete says, “I can’t keep track of all these nickels and dimes. Just pay me back when your ship comes in.
Go on – take it! ” (615). These are perhaps words parents might use with their college age child to ensure their child has enough to get them through a tough time, maybe a week during school exams or something. A parent knows that the money is not going to be paid back, just as Pete knows Donald will never pay the money back to him. This situation reinforces the idea that Pete enables Donald to take advantage of him. Just as history repeats itself, so does the cycle that is Pete and Donald.
Donald once again takes advantage of his brother’s loyalty when on the drive home from the farm the brothers pick up Webster, a hitchhiker and conman. Webster spins a tale too good to be true but Donald can’t see anything other than dollar signs when Webster offers him a share in his gold mine in Peru. Pete, as most adults would have, can see the scam through Webster’s tale immediately and tries to help Donald see the truth by offering up multiple snarky comments and direct questions for Webster to answer. It’s just not enough though as Donald gives away Pete’s $100 to Webster in good faith for a share in the mine.
This is a much larger issue than the fact that Donald just gave away Pete’s money and feels justified and blameless. The other issue is Pete’s – past experience should have taught Pete that Donald is incapable of understanding the value of other people’s money or material items, which is part of the reason he was asked to leave the farm. Throughout “The Rich Brother” there are so many examples of Pete being loyal to a fault, but none are as telling as when Pete and Donald argue over the money Donald has given away.
The brothers fight until they can’t come to any option other than that Donald needs to get out of the car immediately at night in the middle of no where, effectively ending their co-dependent sibling relationship. By this point in life Pete should have realized that leaving Donald figure things out for himself may be the better alternative, but he just can’t. He is too loyal. Pete can’t even bear the idea of telling his wife that he left his brother along the side of the road with no where to turn.
He can’t even kid himself – Pete knows that he is going to turn around and once again pick up the pieces of Donald’s mess, which will enable the cycle to repeat endlessly. All of these events lead one to wonder if Pete is a man driven by guilt. Is there any other reason that Pete, a reasonably successful man would allow himself to be taken advantage of and manipulated so often by Donald? The reader sees this manipulation when Donald questions Pete about why he has a new Mercedes, and why he chooses to skydive, all very expensive things, leaving Pete guiltily defending his choices to enjoy his success.
Pete may also suffer from guilt for mistreating Donald after he underwent some sort of surgery as a child, a story that Donald adamantly recounts to Pete even though many years have passed and Pete isn’t even sure the events ever happened. Additionally, Pete avoids incurring any additional guilt on behalf of Donald by taking care of all of his needs as their mother did before she passed; a similar thought process for Pete as he doesn’t want to imagine the shame he will feel when he tells his wife why Donald is not with him.
By the end of the story the reader can confidently assume that not only will Pete pick up Donald’s pieces but that he will once again put them back together for Donald, even though the best thing Pete could do for Donald would be to step back and allow Donald to take adult responsibility and find a way to put his own pieces back together, but, because absolute loyalty it is part of Pete’s nature it is also his biggest fault when dealing with his brother.
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