The cathartic memoir that had to be written
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.