Donald Antrim’s mother, Louanne, died in August 2000, a mere year after her own mother’s death, in Black Mountain, North Carolina, a place to which she had returned after the death of her father in 1995. Louanne Antrim’s demise, at the relatively young age of 65, was caused by lung cancer, after a lifetime of serious smoking, but she had been, for many years, a serious alcoholic: “She was, for anyone close to her, and especially for those depending on her competency, a threatening person. She had, in fact, lived much of her adult life in a blackout, dreamlessly ‘sleeping’ three hours or less most nights.” By the time she was diagnosed and dying, her son was confronted by a complicated truth: “I could not imagine life without my mother. And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live. I had had enough of Louanne Antrim and was ready for her to be gone. I wanted her dead, and I knew that, in the year of her dying, I would neglect her.”
As might be expected from the author of such hilarious, darkly peculiar novels as Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World, A Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist, The Afterlife is no straightforward account of family history and loss. Nor is it a narrative of suffering and redemption: The book’s first section, originally published as an essay in The New Yorker, is, in fact, a tale against redemption, in which Antrim frames his mother’s death with his own attempts to buy the perfect bed — in some way as a testament to his liberation from his parent — only to find, after months of effort, that he simply can’t do it. It is a spare and oddly powerful account, in which past and present are intertwined just as they are constantly within us. And it is an enactment of the literary endeavor itself, of the necessity and impossibility of articulating all the complexities behind the most apparently mundane of acts. Readers of Antrim’s fiction will be familiar with this strategy, but nowhere in his work has it been more succinctly and effectively employed.
The book comprises seven sections (perhaps redemption, or at least liberation, lies in this magical number?), and each of these is itself an essay, a deceptively meandering and actually orderly juxtaposition of individuals and moments from Antrim’s life. Louanne is at the heart of the book — her fierce, strange passions and paranoias, her obsessive identification with her creative son, her bizarre foray into the world of fashion design (Antrim provides an extraordinary and highly detailed description of one of her kimonos, which stands as her madness made manifest) — but we learn, too, about her gentle and devoted father, the wonderfully named Don Self, who supported her financially until his death, and who formed a powerful bond with his grandson over the care of the woman between them. (Don Self, it would seem, while no fall-down drunk, liked a secret tipple now and then, and kept a bottle in the wheel well of his car.) We learn about Donald’s paternal uncle Eldridge, who drank himself to death by the age of 52, unwilling to stop “because he was afraid that his anger, were he not eradicated by alcohol, might cause him to harm someone”; and about Donald’s university professor father, with whom he tried, in his youth, to connect in literary conversation. It was an attempt only half-successful: His father gave him a passion for books, but remains himself shadowy, significant above all for having married Louanne not once, but twice, and having, in his guilt, stood by apologetically while she drank herself into furious oblivion throughout the years when young Donald was growing up.
For readers seeking an autobiographical account of Antrim, this book will disappoint: He emerges only obliquely here, and it is almost impossible to keep track of the historical jumble of house moves that took the Antrim family from Florida to Virginia to Florida to North Carolina in the last 30 years of the 20th century. What the book does offer is more subtle, and less tidy: the interior experience of a man growing up in a type of unexplained chaos, and the sense that he is able to make of that chaos. That the simple facts are too complicated to grasp, delivered scattershot, some repeatedly, and some not at all, is surely a re-enactment of life in an alcoholic world, in which particular encounters, scenes, or even just moments loom out of the blur in sudden relief and significance. There is a dreamlike quality to this form: The family, sans papa, lived for a time opposite a church the steeple of which had been removed and laid alongside the building. It’s a surreal image of deconsecration to which Antrim returns more than once — but the effect is curiously, and most movingly, like life.
Antrim is also, when he chooses to be, a unique and glorious stylist, and the book is a joy to read, a memoir in the tradition of Nabokov’s Speak, Memory rather than of Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club. “What I remember most from my early childhood in Florida,” Antrim writes, “is an intensity of color both in and above the water, as clouds swept eastward over the ocean, bringing afternoon showers that could begin with a few drops carried on the wind, then abruptly open up and rain down, flooding the streets, the sidewalks, the lawns and tennis courts, the entire world it seemed to me, before eventually, after little more than an hour or two, blowing inland. Often, during storms, a greenish cast of light filled the subtropical sky over Siesta Key, infusing the palm fronds and the leaves of the trees with an even brighter green, yet turning the gulf and the bay, into whose low swells gulls and pelicans were forever diving, a deep, almost olive shade that I have never seen in water anywhere else.” Every evanescent thing, it seems, has an afterlife; and in Antrim’s hands, a worthy one.
THE AFTERLIFE: A Memoir | By DONALD ANTRIM | Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | 208 pages | $20 hardcover
Claire Messud's fourth novel, The Emperor's Children, will be published in August by Knopf.