The best memoirs are as provocative as dreams. They call out their unique take on the world of the writer, and in that specificity, we the readers find ourselves. It is magic and paradoxical that one person’s story finds resonance in many others. Memoirs can be poetic and colorful and moving; they can also be self-absorbed and revealing, as when a writer fails to learn from his life.
David Payne’s recent memoir, Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2015) mostly falls into the first description, the dream-like world of long ago when we were young. But Payne laces strands of ugly truth in his work: his alcoholism, his difficulties in marriage, his need to be so unlike his parents that he almost becomes them, specifically his father. Mostly, though, the book is about his relationship with his younger brother, George A. He adds the initial to distinguish him from other family members named George. Payne refers to his parents by their first names as well. He also uses the dialog technique of dashes without quotation marks, and divides his story in chunks without chronological order, so the major accident that defines and instigates the entire process is told at the beginning and returned to at the end of the book. However, the writing soars poetically throughout.
Many of the tropes of the memoir occur in Payne’s work. He is a witness to his father raping his mother in a hotel bathroom on vacation, and when he bangs on the door, his father tells him to go away and threatens to kill him. Later in a letter, his father tells him that his mother’s disapproval of him sending George A. off to a mental institution rankles him. Her “hatred, spite, revenge has led her to stain the very fabric of your existence and the stench of her menses lingers still.” It is a rather baroque yet vulgar insult, to be sure. However, Payne relentlessly pursues and analyzes the dysfunctional nature of his family, even the loops and whirls through other lives, other relationships, step-siblings, and distant relatives. In the center of it all is George A.’s fight against his mental illness. Payne’s parents relate to George A. He is the athlete, the darling boy. David is the smart one, the child they send to Exeter, but George A. is the one they understand, even when he becomes debilitated by his disease. In the end, his mother takes him in and lets him live with her until the accident that changes everything.
There is much guilt that Payne carries in the book. He struggles with his alcohol problem, resolving to quit drinking for his children, his failing marriage, and dumping his bottles around a rose bush many times over only to repurchase the liquor again. He is failing in dramatic fashion and he knows it. So as the book begins, he must sell his dream house in Vermont to relocate to North Carolina so his wife can take a job and support the family. He tells us that he was led to the property and where to build the house by a voice in his head. It is a similar voice to the one that tells him to write about George A. His mother does not want him to write the book, but he does, obviously. He also becomes a student of Taoism, and this begins his long climb to make some kind of peace with his life.
Throughout, Payne references other works of literature and the experiences of the writing life. One chapter ends with a reworking of the last lines of The Great Gatsby: a sound he hears “like surf that never ebbed but just came on and on, unceasing, toward the future.” It is a neat trick that resonates. He presents a particularly disconcerting situation with one of his novels. When the publisher rejects the finished draft, he is forced to give back the advance his family has lived on for a few years, putting him in insurmountable debt. He fires his agent and asks his publisher for a new editor. In this episode and others, we see the life of a writer with all its warts and foibles, the uncertainties, the rejection, the terror of financial instability.
We also see how life and the people in it can disappoint us. For Payne, he has anger for his brother. He took so much and gave so little, he tells us. Yet, in the end, it is George A. who comes up to Vermont to help him move, and it is in the move that tragedy strikes. He ends the book with an evocative scene of George A. “at the border of a world that isn’t this world anymore…having crossed the finish line before me.” He writes, “Now raise your hand and go. Go on, little brother, it’s time. I’ll see you when I get there.”
In all the moments that make up a life’s journey, it is sometimes difficult to see the entire narrative to the horizon where it ends. We are all broken; we are all a work in progress. David Payne gives us his journey, one he is still working out. In Barefoot to Avalon, an evocative title to be sure, we feel the writer’s pain and we see his redemption.