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 …

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