The cathar­tic mem­oir that had to be writ­ten

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathy Hunt

IT was once my melan­choly duty to re­view only mem­oirs. For sev­eral years, and month af­ter month, some­one’s life would come into my hands, and with the large or small amount of words al­lo­cated to me by my ed­i­tor, I would try to im­part my read­ing ex­pe­ri­ence of that writer’s ex­pe­ri­ence. Like all my re­view books, the mem­oirs fell into sev­eral cat­e­gories: the ones I gave away; the ones I gave away but sus­pect I shouldn’t have; the ones I kick my­self for giv­ing away; the ones I couldn’t wait to get rid of; and the ones I couldn’t bear to part with, such as Iris Origo’s haunt­ing Images and Shad­ows .

Link­ing all the good books, and in the right pro­por­tion to the nec­es­sary self- in­ter­est, is a brave, un­flinch­ing hon­esty. The Af­ter­life is no ex­cep­tion. Be­long­ing to the Au­gusten Bur­roughs, Hi­lary Man­tel, Fay Wel­don school of Clever Sen­si­tive Chil­dren and their Mis­er­able Child­hoods, Don­ald Antrim’s mem­oir is, like theirs, a book he had to write. But, like the long, thick, leafy branch of au­to­bi­og­ra­phy that it is, the mem­oir is not com­pelled, like the white rab­bit, to start at the be­gin­ning and, in­flu­enced by cin­e­matic at­ti­tudes, it hardly ever does.

So, af­ter a brief an­nounce­ment of his mother’s death, the Amer­i­can nov­el­ist be­gins by mak­ing full use of the form’s lim­it­less space. This means a long de­tour to Bloom­ing­dale’s in New York City, where he at­tempts to buy time in the shape of a bed. ‘‘ Some­times,’’ as Man­tel writes in her mem­oir, ‘‘ you come to a thing you can’t write. You’ve writ­ten ev­ery­thing you can think of, to stop the story get­ting here.’’ Antrim knows what he’s do­ing when he tells us how ‘‘ a nov­el­ist with lit­er­ary- level sales and a tal­ent for re­morse came to lay out close to $ 7000 for a mat­tress’’.

He was avoid­ing this book like the plague. His mother had just died in a very un­com­fort­able bed, but the truth was deeper than sleep. He ‘‘ had had enough of Louanne Antrim and was ready for her to be gone. I wanted her dead.’’

The wo­man in ques­tion was an ‘‘ op­er­at­i­cally sui­ci­dal’’ al­co­holic with a PhD from the col­lege of home eco­nomics at Florida State Univer­sity. She had twice mar­ried Antrim’s fa­ther, a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, whom his son de­clines to name. Un­der­mined early by his un­faith­ful­ness, both mar­riages had been so bad that a cam­pus neigh­bour with a gun had ar­rived one night in the mid­dle of a row and in­vited one of them to use it.

Antrim and his younger sis­ter had liv­ing grand­par­ents on both sides. A Latin teacher, his pa­ter­nal grand­mother El­iza had lost the love of her life through re­li­gious dif­fer­ences and mar­ried in­stead the tac­i­turn Robert Antrim, a man known for driv­ing slowly. Wryly ex­as­per­ated in tone, Antrim re­calls how, dur­ing a speech­less two- week ex­cur­sion, Robert and his brother, the equally silent Frank, had passed a place sell­ing tacky gar­den or­na­ments. ‘‘ Us­ing as few words as pos­si­ble’’, the brothers had paid for the en­tire stock, then driven off in their old Ford, turned and, en­ter­ing the lot slowly, ‘‘ plowed through the stat­ues . . . de­stroy­ing ev­ery one’’.

It is, how­ever, Antrim’s un­cle Eldridge, his fa­ther’s brother, who comes to rep­re­sent the enor­mous amount of work re­quired to sur­vive in this fam­ily. Of­fer­ing a frag­ile and ir­reg­u­lar sanc­tu­ary to his trau­ma­tised nephew, Eldridge lived with the weird and wid­owed El­iza. Once ‘‘ a tall and beau­ti­ful man’’, he had sub­mit­ted to his mother’s iron rule and ‘‘ re­mained her vas­sal for life’’. Antrim pub­lishes a long list of the things his un­cle kept care­fully packed in his Tri­umph TR3 in case ‘‘ all life out­side our car were to be cat­a­stroph­i­cally ex­tin­guished’’.

An­other tor­mented soul, Louanne sought sal­va­tion in her ‘‘ declam­a­tory yet in­com­pre­hen­si­ble clothes’’, but for all her skill she could not cut her cloth to fit the real world.

Louanne and Eldridge would die ad­dicts’ deaths, the lat­ter re­fus­ing to stop drink­ing ‘‘ be­cause he was afraid his anger, were he not med­i­cated by al­co­hol, might cause him to harm some­one’’. Be­fore she died Louanne asked her son if he was go­ing to ded­i­cate his next book to her. A new novel was due to ap­pear but the writer did not want to com­mit him­self. ‘‘ It has to be the right book,’’ he told her. And it is. Kathy Hunt is a lit­er­ary critic based in rural Vic­to­ria.

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