The annals of addiction and the narrative of the dysfunctional family are the lifeblood of the memoir. Lord Fear (Pantheon, 2015) by Lucas Mann is no different, although the author brings to the table the influence of Catcher In The Rye and the journalist’s skill of running down the story. As we accompany him on his journey to understand the life of his brother, Josh, who died of a drug overdose, we see Salinger’s overtones in the teenage life of boys, the kind of nastiness that is second-nature to young men of this age. They tease and bully one another; they display their gross habits, the usual masturbation and nose-picking and crass talk of sexual encounters that are often more bravado than actual experience. And we learn that Josh was not a nice person, a dysfunctional screw-up who terrorized the people he met. He is not a sympathetic character.
Mann brings us into Josh’s interior life through his journals and notebooks which the brother inherited after death. He sectionalizes the memoir beginning with quotes from the volumes of written material Josh left behind, including poetry and song lyrics. There is no doubt that Josh had many talents and many gifts, all of them squandered in his drug-fueled and often psychotic episodes. But Mann does not sugar-coat his own foibles: “I’m a writer now,” he tells us, “self-identified. Really, I intern and sometimes freelance for bad pay. I make a point of walking around with a reporter’s notebook in my back pocket, and I like to hit Play at random moments on the digital recorders I fill up, just to get the rush of hearing my voice asking a question, another’s answering me.” This he shares with Josh, who also had the habit of making recordings of ramblings and nonsense, putting his friends and family on the spot with repetitive questioning about sex and sexual behavior, to the point of nausea for this reader. Mann’s desire is to get at the truth, mainly because truth is illusive, even in the realm of fact. What does something truly mean? There are the facts of Josh’s life, but the nausea I felt in reading the story is a credit to Mann getting at the emotional truth of his brother’s psychosis and the impact it has on nearly every character’s life as he describes him or her. These are not nice people in this book; they are flawed, but Josh is far ahead of all of them, a kind of frenetic nuisance who belittles and badgers until he provokes angry or even violent reactions in others. Early on, Mann comes to the conclusion that “when an addict ceases to be the person that you loved or maybe is still that person somewhere, but on the outside, the part you have to interact with, nothing remains.” However, this teaches him as a writer to “look for explanations in characters,” and so he embarks on a journey to interview the people who encountered Josh to rectify the fluidity of memory with the accounts of others. Did they all remember the scenes as Mann does? In the congruent moments and where they differ, the truth becomes apparent. It is emotional truth over literal truth, the truth of recollection over the unsparing digital voices on a recording. This is how Mann builds the life-story of his brother.
He integrates literature into the story, quoting at length from books like Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Philip Roth, as well as from films that the author remembers watching. The title comes from a poem Josh, himself, wrote: “Behind an iron gate with a steel fence in an iron compound there lives Lord Fear. In his eyes is his cold, white stare. His gun and his shield by his side, a metal sheet protecting his heart—Lord Fear is frightened of what has never been.”
We get it. As with all memoirs of addiction that end in tragedy, Josh’s death is a waste. In fact, he moved through his life leaving a swath of destruction in his wake. People who encountered him were not just forced to endure his obnoxious behavior, they were scarred by it, and those scars remained open wounds for long after he left the earth with a needle in his arm. But Lucas Mann’s story of his brother is not unique, and I think there may be others who have done the job better in both fiction and nonfiction. I could not help thinking of the recently departed and dearly missed David Carr’s memoir/journalism, The Night of the Gun: A Reporter Investigates the Darkest Story of His Life. His Own. (Simon & Schuster, 2009). He, too, went back to confirm the facts of his life story, lived while strung out on a variety of drugs resulting in many surprises and insights that felt more real and profound than Mann’s work here.
Sad to say, addiction and early death are not profound, especially when they end a reign of terror. The book is called Lord Fear for a reason, and it is not just because of some poem scribbled in a journal. As many witnesses to his brother’s destruction recounted on the pages of this book, his psychotic behavior was so extreme and out of control that the story could only end one way. And quite possibly, this might have been a relief to everyone who knew him.