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:

One more feature needs description. This is an object that covers—as if it had flown in from mountainous lands where giant, benign creatures dwell; found itself over southern Florida; gazed down and seen, from high above the clouds, my mother at work in her shop; then descended and landed in her fields of silk, where it got comfortable and decided to stay—this object…covers the entire upper back of the kimono. It is an enormous, enormously winged, butterfly.

This, if daffy, is also tender and lyrical—the big, floaty creature, the mother in her “fields of silk”—and then, as is the way with Antrim’s best writing on Louanne, it takes a little pivot and turns into something else. The butterfly, he says, was a parasite. It was meant to carry her away; it never did. She stayed in the world, crushed. And in revenge, she crushed others. Louanne’s leading trait in her late years, Antrim writes, was her power to “force away the people she loved,” to tell them that she was on a journey from which they were excluded. That’s what the kimono symbolized.

At the opening of this chapter, Antrim describes himself talking to the dead Louanne, “in a suitably quiet voice,” as he descends the marble steps of the Forty-second Street library in New York. In such moments, he imagines her “hovering in the near-distance, usually at a modest height above the ground, just as angels in classical paintings float in the vicinity of the upper corners of their frames.” At the end of the chapter, he is back on the marble staircase, talking to her, but she’s not an angel anymore. “‘Mom!’ I said, and, as I called out to her, I did not glance over my shoulder, and I did not, in that passing instant, dare to see, at a modest height above the ground—my mother, not there.” As he said earlier, she abandoned him, abandoned them all.

A prior chapter has to do with another betrayal, not by Louanne, but by Antrim’s father’s brother, Uncle Eldridge, a charming eccentric who stored his whole life, or the life he dreamed of, in his car. I must quote the description of Eldridge’s gear at length, because its length is central to its beauty:

In the backseat he kept a bicycle with the front wheel removed. I never saw him put the wheel on and ride. Next to the bicycle was a golf bag holding woods and irons, balls, tees, pencils for scoring, golf gloves, a visor. Adjacent to the clubs were a couple of beach chairs folded and jammed between the car’s front and backseats, and wedged on the seat were towels and a cooler chest, into which he loaded, every day or two, ice, beer, and strawberry, grape, and orange sodas. In the car’s trunk, as I remember it, were his tennis racquets with their protective covers zippered on, and a tennis bag like those the pros carry onto the court, stuffed with balls in cans, cotton sweatbands, shorts, shirts, tennis shoes, socks, and a hat. There was a football for playing catch at the beach, and a pump for pumping up the ball. There were baseball mitts and a baseball; and there was fishing gear—a takedown rod stored in its elegant cylindrical case, and a small tackle kit packed with hooks, lures, and line—and there was swimming and, sometimes, I recall, scuba equipment, including a mask, fins, a snorkel, a dive knife, a depth gauge, a regulator, a buoyancy vest, a weight belt, and, shoved up into the back of the trunk—though in order to make space for it, he might have been forced, in a gesture of triage, to sacrifice other items—a small tank that actually belonged to me. In the event that he had occasion to dress nicely on land, he had what was minimally required. Pressed trousers. A clean shirt. A tie, rolled up. Changes of underwear. Thin socks. A belt. Black shoes with shoe trees inserted in them. Shoe polish. A rag for polishing. There was a shaving kit holding a razor and soap, shampoo, talcum powder, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush and a comb, and plenty of the English Leather cologne he splashed on at intervals throughout his day. There was a battery-operated portable record player, and Everly Brothers, Clancy Brothers, and Smothers Brothers records to play on it. For reading, he carried a collection of hunting, tennis, golf, and archery magazines, Playboy and Penthouse, and books by D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Lawrence Durrell. For shooting, he kept, in a space near the tire well, a .22 pistol in a leather case; and sometimes there was a double-barreled shotgun…. And there were many things relating to the maintenance of the car in specific and to safe travel in general: spark plugs, antifreeze in a jug, motor oil in a can, socket wrenches, jumper cables, sulfur flares. There was tanning lotion; and there were Band-Aids and other medical supplies, including an Ace bandage; and writing materials and postage stamps; and, tucked here and there in nooks and crannies, golf shoes, an umbrella, a rain poncho, a thermos, a Swiss Army knife, bottle and can openers, a pair of binoculars, a Frisbee.

In other words, Eldridge kept in his car the entire fantasy world of a teenaged boy. When, in his youth, Donald became worn out by his family, he would get on a bus and go spend a few days with Eldridge. These visits ended abruptly when he was thirteen. One night, Eldridge, drunk, came out to the sunporch where Donald was sleeping, started tussling with him playfully, then pinned him to the bed and humped him, had sex against his back. Donald left the next morning, without explanation. Later in the chapter, Antrim records that Eldridge died of acute alcohol poisoning at the age of fifty-two. The woman who took care of him in his last year reported that as he breathed his last, bloody footprints walked across the living room floor. So Eldridge is granted a poignant ending. Still, this is a tale about alcoholism and hence, sideways, about Louanne. It is the most impressive chapter in the book. Here Antrim’s habitual tug-of-war between comedy and horror—tenderness too, in this case—moves to the breaking point, and does not break.

A companion chapter has to do with Louanne’s late-life boyfriend, S.—she met him in AA—and his obsession with a painting he saw in his youth in New York, where, before becoming an alcoholic and a drifter, he was studying to be an artist. The painting, S. tells Antrim (who is an adult now, so S. figures he might be able to help about the painting), may be a lost Leonardo da Vinci. Or, he thinks later, maybe it’s a Frederick Church. It belonged to a man whose house S. boarded in when he was in New York. Then it passed to a cousin of that man, or maybe several cousins, then to S. Some sharp dealers—or perhaps only one—whom S. met in a bar tried to get it from S.; he called the State Department about them/him. S.’s progress reports to Donald wind endlessly and vaguely; that is the comedy of the chapter. As with Louanne’s kimono and Eldridge’s gear, we get a wondrous description of the painting, and as with those other things, the search for the painting is a story about alcoholism—the drunk’s dream of some great event, some distant truth, that will explain and redeem his shattered life. Central to this chapter is something that is peripheral to the other chapters, but always there, hovering: a sort of black hole where reality gets sucked up and fantasy comes down. That, Antrim is saying, is the alcoholic mind, and it is what so frightened him about Louanne. What he doesn’t say is that his prose—the fabulous, ingathering progression of his sentences, on his mother’s driveway and her couture, on Eldridge’s trunk and S.’s painting—mimics the dreamed-of apotheosis, but in art, not life. They are the redemption.

Those are the best chapters, and the secret of their excellence is their self-limitation. Instead of trying to give a comprehensive portrait of his mother, Antrim plumbs something very specific, and makes it yield both the metaphoric riches of poetry and, at the other end of the spectrum, the moral meanings that nineteenth-century novelists felt they had a right to address directly but that later novelists—including, in some measure, Antrim—do not. In other chapters, he does attempt to give a rounded portrait of his mother, and while they are very good, they are not as artistic. Louanne still scares him. When he comes straight up against her, he shies, and turns to something else, so there’s a lot of back-and-forthing. Also, these chapters—all the chapters, actually—contain a good deal of analysis: Antrim’s effort to control his memory of what he went through. If I had to guess, I would say that he has had a lot of psychotherapy, of the Kleinian or Kernbergian variety. The analysis is acute—Eldridge’s trunk, Antrim writes, was “a form of warehouse or armory, in which my uncle secreted aspects of himself that would become, as the years went by, forbidden, denied, historical, forgotten”—but sometimes we would rather have dispensed with the interpretation and just let things be themselves, radiating suggestion, rather than delivering a single parcel of truth. Even in the more wide-ranging chapters, however, it is interesting to see what Antrim leaves out—notably, his father. He says that when he was a teenager, and desperate to break his mother’s spell over him, he tried to enter his father’s world—above all, the world of literature—and that his father gave him no encouragement whatsoever. That’s not the only time the father let him down. In the terrible scene of Louanne’s invading Donald’s bedroom in the night, the father is there, but not too much there: “I looked past her to see my father watching us from the shadows outside my room, whispering that he was sorry for everything.” That’s not quite enough, but it’s as far as this book goes with the old man. I presume he is still alive.

The book is very funny when it wants to be, but in between it is rueful, and there is no happy ending, no reconciliation or resignation. On the contrary, Antrim says, “Near her life’s close, I lost the fortitude, the ability, the heart to be with my mother.” Shortly before her death, he discovered that she had tried to chisel her children out of her father’s money, and Antrim took this hard: “I wanted her dead.” As a punishment, it seems, for that wish, he got the job of effecting her death, of administering the morphine:

Every four hours, I pressed a lorazepam [Ativan] tablet to powder in a spoon, introduced into this powder a small measure of the liquid morphine, drew the solution into an oral syringe, and squirted the drug into my mother’s partly open mouth.

Then he played music, or read to her. After a few days, her face relaxed, became young again.

I left off reading and told her that she had been a good mother, a good artist; that Terry and I loved her and were grateful to her for her care…. I held my mother’s hand and told her that the house was empty except for the two of us, it was just her and me in the house, and it was a nice day outside the windows, birds were in the trees, a breeze blew the leaves, clouds crossed the sky, and if she wanted to she could go ahead and die, which she promptly did.

One thing I haven’t mentioned, a staple of Southern literature, is the sense of place. Again and again in the book, we see the Florida coastline, the gray, lapping sea, the gray, heavy skies, always ready, like Antrim’s family, to explode. We hear, too, about Appalachia: the mountains, the songs, which, with their “nasal, heavily accented, prayerful quality of voice” and their grievous subject matter—“betrayal, repentance, redemption, loss in love, alcoholism,…conversations with the devil—could cause Antrim, when he was driving to Miami with Terry, to reach out and turn the radio off. “The cadences and the rhythms and the slightly downward-falling inflections”: these, he says, can be heard in his and his sister’s voices. To him, they mean pain.

At the end of the book, he calls on that sense of place. Unlike “the old fucker’s ashes,” Louanne’s remains are not lost. They are in a box in a closet of his sister’s house:

Maybe before long Terry will fly with them to Charlotte, North Carolina, where, at the airport, I’ll meet her. We’ll join up at the car-rental desk, get a car, put our mother’s ashes in the backseat and our suitcases in the trunk, and head to Bridges, in Shelby, for barbecue, then continue west toward the Smoky Mountains. We’ll drive past Chimney Rock, around Lake Lure, up past Old Fort, and down into Black Mountain.

They will travel, he says, along

highways bordered with kudzu and corn, gas stations and pecan emporia, horse farms and flood canals, office parks and ocean resorts, straight through South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, all the way to the Keys, to Islamorada, where, on the Atlantic side of the island, there is a beachfront lodge that my mother loved. I hope to go there, take the ashes out of the car, and, with my sister beside me, walk to the water with them.

Walk to the water? That’s baptism, the washing away of sin. In the face of this hope, one almost doesn’t know what to say, except good luck. And on the evidence of this book, you’re doing fine, don’t worry.