Review: Masha Gessen’s ‘The Brothers’

The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Masha Gessen. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.95.
The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy. Masha Gessen. Riverhead. 288 pages. $27.95.

Long before his thoughts turned to murder, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the low-rent Moriarty behind the Boston Marathon bombing, plunged into the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to teach himself English. I have no idea if he ever came across the Holmesian adage, “A truth is better than indefinite doubt,” in the course of his reading. But Masha Gessen would agree with the great detective. In her new book, she uses facts and plausible conjecture to dispel the misconceptions and rumors that have accrued to the Tsarnaevs.

No slouch in the sleuth department herself, this Russian-born journalist assembles a challenging jigsaw puzzle that spans two continents. Her goal is to elucidate and contextualize the brothers’ principled savagery, not to exonerate or mitigate their actions. While several questions remain, the most important being motive, we at least learn the socio-cultural forces that shaped these lone-wolf terrorists.

Essentially, The Brothers is an immigrant story gone horribly awry. The Tsarnaev family came to the United States with the hope of finding stability and happiness. Back home, in the Caucasus, they had moved around quite a bit, from Dagestan to Kazakhstan to war-torn Chechnya. But here they never really fit in.

The parents were raised in a rigidly traditional environment that had been brutalized by the Soviets. Alcoholism, domestic violence and honor killings were commonplace. In Boston they had trouble making ends meet. Their uneducated daughters fell into teen motherhood. Tamerlan, their pride and joy, drifted after walking away from an erratic boxing career; he wound up selling drugs.

Everybody loved baby-faced Dzhokhar (or “Jahar,” as he preferred to be called), a “social superstar” whose easygoing way masked a hollow self that was waiting to be directed toward a glorious purpose.

Other characters figure prominently. A chapter is devoted to Ibragim Todashev, a Chechen fighter shot to death by FBI agents after allegedly confessing to slitting the throats of three of Tamerlan’s friends in a drug robbery before the bombing. Gessen pokes a few compelling holes in the FBI’s version; she rejects conspiracy theories but leaves institutional incompetence on the table.

And there are the Three Stooges: Dzhokhar’s college bros, who removed a backpack containing incriminating evidence from his dorm room. They weren’t trying to save him, they were worried the cops would find a bag of marijuana and trace it back to them. You will laugh in disbelief at their mistakes.

Then the laughter will cease when you remember what the father of 8-year-old Martin Richard testified at Dzhokhar’s trial. Why did he leave his boy alone, mutilated and in agony, to tend to his other injured child? “I knew he wasn’t going to make it.”

Ariel Gonzalez teaches English at Miami Dade College.