Langthorne’s debut novel centers on a young man’s turbulent youth with his dysfunctional parents.
“My limitations are strange, but I can only do what only I can do,” says Wilbur Topsail, the narrator of Langthorne’s novel. Born in 1950s Michigan to a WWII–vet father and a spirited, accommodating mother, Topsail has a normal boyhood featuring TV, comic books, chemistry sets and playmates. But the story darkens as his parents’ drinking begins to spin out of control. What was once social drinking on weekends grows into epic benders punctuated by rage, vomit and blackouts. Young Wilbur endures as best he can, earning good grades and dreaming of college in Ohio. By this point in Wilbur’s bitter, outspoken account, he has lost whatever slim illusion he might have had about his parents: “I could see that I was economically dependent on two weekend alcoholics and deep inside I knew everything would get far worse, I could taste the doom foretold.” And things do get worse. His parents’ dream of buying a marina turns into a nightmare that ends in bankruptcy. Wilbur describes the deteriorating relationship with his parents as alcohol takes control of their lives. A disastrous trip to Nogales with his father is evocatively recalled—“As the day progressed, with the fake blind men begging on the corners, and filthy little girls in tattered clothes, no taller than my waist, trying to sell sticks of chewing gum, I began to sicken”—in addition to later tragedies. Wilbur recounts his later life and bleak philosophy in equally unsparing detail. The book concludes with “The Life Expectancy of Pantyhose and the Poems of Middle Age,” a volume of poetry Wilbur self-publishes during a particularly aimless point in his life. The hopelessness of the narrative will be challenging for most readers, and the minimal comfort Wilbur derives from his memories will be small consolation for those who can relate.
An effective, dark look at growing up with alcoholic parents.