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Between Comedy and Horror

The Afterlife

by Donald Antrim
Farrar, Straus and Giroux,192 pp., $20.00

Donald Antrim, as we know from his novels, has a way with openers. Here are the first two sentences of his new book, which is not a novel, but a memoir, entitled The Afterlife:

My mother, Louanne Antrim, died on a fine Saturday morning in the month of August, in the year 2000. She was lying in new purple sheets on a hospital-style bed rolled up next to the green oxygen tanks set against a wall in what was more or less the living room of her oddly decorated, dark and claustrophobic house, down near the bottom of a drive that wound like a rut past a muddy construction site and backyards bordered with chain-link fence, coming to an end in the parking lot that served the cheerless duck pond at the center of the town in which she had lived the last five years of her life, Black Mountain, North Carolina.

The second sentence moves like the driveway, gathering, in its windings, the jaunty purple sheets and the grim hospital bed, the nice ducks and their nasty pond, not to speak of the beautiful morning and the dead mother. Louanne Antrim had moved to Black Mountain five years earlier, after her father’s death, in order to be near her mother and thereby get control of the money her father had left. Louanne’s mother died in 1999, whereupon Louanne announced that she was at last “free of that woman, now I’m going to go somewhere I want to go and live my life.” A week later, she was told that she had lung cancer. Likewise, when Louanne died the following year, Antrim thought that he would be released from her stranglehold on him. He would understand her at last, or, failing that, just go forth, unstrangled. Unlike Louanne, he didn’t get a death sentence a week later. He got a life sentence, and that is the story of this book: his mother’s haunting of him.

Antrim has published three novels, and they are of a piece. All are slim and elegantly written; all are filled with black humor and cosmic dread. As other reviewers have remarked, Antrim is a legatee of Pynchon and DeLillo, but he is working in an older tradition as well. Antrim comes from Florida, by way of Virginia (his father) and Tennessee (his mother). He is part of our Southern literature: murder among the magnolias. His first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993), portrays a town, in what sounds like Florida, where neighbors are constructing electrified fences around their houses and shooting Stinger missiles at each other in the Botanical Garden. In the course of this novel, two people—one of them a little girl—are drawn and quartered. The book is extremely funny. Next comes The Hundred Brothers (1997), my favorite. Here the political satire drops out and something else drops in: the family. Literally one hundred brothers, all of them described in one virtuoso opening sentence, convene in the decaying mansion of their dead father—a charismatic and terrifying man—to see if they can find “the missing urn full of the old fucker’s ashes.” By the end of the long night, they still haven’t found the urn. They are intent on something else, murdering the narrator (one of the brothers)—indeed, cutting out his heart—and he is happy about this. The book is horrifying, and even funnier than Elect Mr. Robinson. You laugh out loud.

In the third novel, The Verificationist (2000), a group of psychotherapists specializing in “Self/Other Friction Theory” gather for a meeting at a pancake house. The protagonist—Tom this time, but they’re all the same: outwardly certain, inwardly nuts—threatens to start a food fight, whereupon another therapist, Bernhardt, a loathed father figure, grabs him from behind and lifts him by the waist, launching him into a dissociative episode where he imagines himself flying around the ceiling with a good-looking waitress. The episode ends, grotesquely, with Bernhardt ejaculating against Tom’s back. This time the hero doesn’t die; he just gets taken to the mental hospital. From book to book, the themes are the same: cruelty, masochism, infantilism. So is the tone, deadpan hilarity, and so is the method, fantasy entwined with spot-on realism. The dialogue sounds like something you heard on the street a minute ago.

Now, if I were to tell you that Antrim, having written these three excellent, obsessional novels, had now published a memoir telling us, basically, where all that material came from—how he spent his childhood in pity and terror of a raging alcoholic mother, and how she wasn’t the only one; how, in his family, he humored one drunk after another, saying yes, yes, to their crazy notions, all the while laughing at them and also fearing that, sucked into their dream world, he would never find a proper reality, never become a man—if I were to tell you this, what would you say? I know what I’d say: that the memoir would be much less interesting than the novels. And it isn’t. It’s Antrim’s best book so far.

Apart from our genes, probably the biggest piece of luck, good or bad, that any of us gets is which mother we are born to. Antrim drew a tricky number. Louanne was a pretty and talented girl from Tennessee. She herself grew up with an unstable mother, who subjected her, in her childhood, to unnecessary surgeries. Once, she seems to have had a rib removed. (Antrim reports this because his mother told it to him, but he doesn’t know if it’s true. He doesn’t know if anything she told him is true.) She married her high school sweetheart, Harry Antrim, who became an English professor, and she never saw herself as up to his quality. Actually, she too earned a doctorate, and ran a program in fashion, textiles, and costume history at Miami-Dade Community College, but she felt “maligned in the world,” and already by the time of Antrim’s early childhood, she was drinking heavily. The father left her for another woman; they divorced. Four years later, he came back, and they remarried, but she didn’t stop drinking, and the marriage didn’t get any better. Every night the parents would break out the Jim Beam and begin a violent fight, which Donald and his younger sister Terry would listen to as they lay sleepless in their beds. The family moved constantly:

We would go into the new rooms and paint the walls and uncrate the books and dust off the flower vases and sort the silverware and hang the pictures and roll out the rugs in a matter of days, as if in a hurry to produce a home that might be an improvement on the one that had come before, and in which we could forget or at least put in the past the unhappiness that had come before, knowing that once the chairs were arranged in the new living room and the beds in the new bedrooms had been made, it would come again.

Finally, Louanne had to undergo repeated hospitalizations for alcoholic hepatitis. The father moved out again. Louanne then drank more. In a culminating episode, Donald, now an adult, calls her from New York, where he is living. At the other end, the phone is picked up, but no one speaks. He flies to Miami that night, and finds Louanne in the grips of the DTs, screaming about monsters that are coming to get her. He puts her to bed; he gives her a massage; he tells her that he won’t let the monsters get her. He stays a week. After that, Louanne finally dries out, and she remains sober for the last thirteen years of her life. But she substitutes one delirium for another. She decides that she is an artist and a visionary. She works up a philosophy compounded of “Jungian psychology, Native American mythology, and various recovered-memory and past-life regression theories,” and she spouts this stuff—together with her grievances against her ex-husband and life in general—to Donald. She believed, he says, that

if we name the faults of those who have hurt us, we will be shielded from pain;…if we pity our betrayers, we will not have been betrayed, mishandled, misunderstood, or left abandoned. But what happens when the ordeal of abandonment is—as I think it was for my mother, and for me with her—life itself?

The critical words in that passage are “for me with her.” The subject of The Afterlife is not so much Antrim’s mother as, he says, “my mother inme.” Ambivalence is a concept that people throw around, but for those who have a serious case of it, it is a drawing and quartering. Probably the most wholesome emotion Antrim feels toward Louanne is anger, but he never gets very far down that road before other feelings assail him. When he was a teenager, he writes, she would storm into his room in the middle of the night, “swaying, half conscious and with gray smoke from her cigarette wreathing her face, shattered by bourbon and white wine.” Exhausted with berating her husband, she now lit into her son. He was the cause of the ruin of their family, she said. “When she raised her hand to strike,…I easily batted her arm back, then stepped forward and quickly steadied her before she tipped.” He held her up, so that she could scream at him some more.

At the same time, he was frightened of her, and not just as a child. (“I was a man in his forties, afraid of his mother.”) And particularly in her late days, when—her beauty blasted by alcohol, her hair looking as though she had cut it herself, in the dark—she would declaim her Jungian nonsense and spill food down her dress front as she ate, he was embarrassed by her. He also loved her. When she had the DTs and he gave her the massage, it was the same massage that she had given him when, as a child, he had attacks of asthma—an illness he thinks he developed in order to die in place of her, and also to bring her to his bedside. She played on his love. She romanced him. When he became a writer, she said they were two of a kind: both artists. She hated men, she declared, but not Donald: “I became her true husband, the man both like and unlike other men. And, in becoming these things, I became sick.”

Not too sick. All of this is treated with delicate artistry. The book is in seven chapters, which are essays, more or less. (Four were first published in The New Yorker.) One has to do with Louanne’s “art.” After she stopped drinking, she opened a shop, called Peace Goods, in a strip mall in Miami. There she did some tailoring, from which she made a little money, and also created her own, New Age fashions, from which, to her bewilderment, she earned nothing. In a delirious few pages, Antrim describes her chef d’oeuvre, a white silk kimono embellished with lace, ruchings, epaulettes, ribbons, and tassels, plus appliquéd and pendant birds, hearts, cats, coins, a starfish, a giraffe, a horseshoe, a horse, and a man in the moon:

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