Booze, chaos and depression pass from mother to daughter in this searing memoir.
Van Ivan grew up in the 1950s smoldering in a childhood from hell: dragging her inebriated mother home from bars where she’d passed out; weathering a string of unstable stepfathers; getting yanked from home to home and toted along on drunken transcontinental joy rides; being left alone to take care of her younger brothers when their parents disappeared for days on end. There’s squalor aplenty in this saga but also feisty resilience and even lyricism in van Ivan’s unsparing account of her appalling circumstances. The adults in her life—her beautiful, cruel mother, her charming and mostly absent bookie father—loom mythically large in her child’s-eye perspective, which, depending on unpredictable twists of fortune, veers among apprehension, panic, wary relief and rare carefree idylls. The toll all this takes on her becomes gradually apparent as van Ivan makes her way into adulthood determined not to make her mother’s mistakes but apparently fated to do so anyway. Bouncing between New York and Hollywood in pursuit of a marginal show-business career (she sketches vivid portraits of celebrities she encountered, from a dapper Cary Grant to a crazed John Cassavetes), she develops her own unappeasable yen for alcohol and drugs and embarks on a series of rickety marriages and relationships. Her empty, unmoored life becomes a whirl of hangovers, blackouts and compulsive thoughts of suicide. This is dark material, but van Ivan treats it with an exhilarating irony that avoids bathos. She tells her story with novelistic detail and nuance in a raptly observant prose that’s matter-of-fact but infused with mordant wit and occasional flights of hallucinatory fancy. The result is a gripping read that spins painful experiences into deeply satisfying literature.
An affecting memoir of dysfunction in a fragmented life that gains clarity and grace in its telling.