Ruminations on family and success, in the context of a fraternal tragedy.
Novelist Payne (Back to Wando Passo, 2006, etc.), a founding faculty member of the Queens University MFA Program, builds his memoir around an unbearable burden. In 2000, George A., his charismatic yet bipolar brother, died in a crash while helping the author move long-distance. In the past, they shared a charmed but dark Southern childhood, their genteel mother overwhelmed by their manipulative, alcoholic father. “My oldest competitor and ally,” writes Payne, “he was the only one who knew or ever would know what that time and place had been for me.” Although George had suffered manic episodes before, he’d always recovered sufficiently to resume a career as a broker—until 1991, when he was fired and moved in with their mother. In the face of George’s deterioration, writes the author, “my certainties and resentments seemed suddenly small and brittle.” Payne narrates his own story as a series of improbable ups and downs, from attending Exeter as his parents’ marriage disintegrated to early success followed by penury as a novelist. The author’s ambition and determination to flee—he impulsively bought land with a book advance, a decision that would haunt him as leading to George’s death—kept him from seeing how he and his brother seemed fated to repeat their father’s self-destruction. Both brothers entered optimistic marriages that produced children, then imploded. “Our father’s actions,” he writes, “were those you’d take against your enemies when you burn their houses to the ground...and in a way George’s actions are terminal like Bill’s were.” Payne’s prose is lyrical, allowing him to convey intense meaning in mundane interactions and distantly recalled family crises as well as a clear sense of a variety of settings. His dense, sprawling sentences may demand patience, but they illuminate a riveting family history and ask complex questions about social prestige, mental health, and the ties that bind.
A powerful, above-average literary memoir.