A devastating debut memoir about a Southern childhood.
A simple summary of the storyline of this memoir might inspire an eye-roll: Do we really need another tale about someone growing up in a South of days-gone-by, surrounded by eccentric relatives and neighbors, with a little alcoholism and incest thrown in for good measure? But Goolrick takes that tired scenario and makes it magical. He recounts a Virginia childhood worthy of William Styron and Flannery O’Connor. The deformed weirdos, a staple of Southern grotesque, are here, including severely retarded aunt Dodo, who one day asked young Robert to kiss her passionately. Here, too, are cocktail parties that would have inspired Douglas Sirk: Goolrick describes the lavish fetes his parents threw, the lovely chiffon dresses his mother wore. But something was off-kilter, at even the grandest parties. The chiffon dresses always wound up with cigarette burns, and the hectic entertaining was artifice and pretense, a frantic effort to cover up alcoholism and other, more hideous, family secrets. The author interweaves scenes from his childhood with scenes from his adult life: his mother’s attempt to get dry, his own breakdown and drinking problem, his mother’s death. One of the most gripping and emotionally insightful passages is of his father’s funeral, where Goolrick makes clear how hard it is to bury a man you haven’t forgiven. The language is lush and poetic while never becoming purple.
Goolrick is clearly a victim of his parents’ brutal abuse, but he has broken out of the categories of “victim” and “survivor” to become a powerful truth-teller.