NBCC Memoir Finalist: Donald Antrim’s The Afterlife

by Sybil Steinberg | Feb-13-2007

Donald Antrim’s mother, Louanne, dies in the first sentence of his poignant and mordantly funny memoir, The Afterlife. Only a few pages later, in what seems a stunning non sequitur, Antrim segues into the story of his frustrating attempts to buy a new bed. Only after bed after bed has been returned to Bloomingdales and Duxiana does he acknowledge that he is describing a full-fledged nervous breakdown. The bed search is his search for "love and sympathy," an attempt to make sense of his parents' marriage and his own devotion to and revulsion from his emotionally volatile, self-destructive, alcoholic, chain smoking, rage-filled, paranoid, "operatically suicidal" mother.

Reading this brave, soul-baring book is to accompany Antrim into a spiral of depression followed by emerging self-awareness and a tentative catharsis as he works through his grief. His is a seductive voice that vibrates with dark humor and sudden gasps of anguish. Reflecting on the crushing ambivalence of love and hate that marked his relationship with his mother, Antrim can't help but see the ludicrous aspects of their lives. His anger and bitterness are muted by compassion.

Antrim's mother, it turns out, epitomizes generations of emotional damage. Recounting her life leads Antrim to stories about her parents and then to other stories about Antrim"s paternal relatives. The narrative leads up one ancestral path and down another until they intersect with the clarity of insight. The reader may begin to think that eccentric, self-destructive alcoholics dangle from the branches of every Southern family’s tree. Or, inversely, that these are merely specific examples of the tragic human condition.

While the memoir is cohesive, it may be significant that it was written in discrete segments. Maybe Antrim could come to grips with his memories only in small doses. Maybe the chapters conformed to a quota of cigarettes whose smoke curls through these pages in gusts of desperation. Undoubtedly the book represents an honest attempt by a highly gifted writer to reduce bizarre circumstances to comprehensible terms of a mother-son relationship. Or maybe, like his search for a bed, Antrim knew that an attempt at resolution was as quixotic as the afterlife in which his mother expected to achieve vindication. By writing he could hope to bring them both to an afterlife of understanding, if not ultimate peace.--Sybil Steinberg, NBCC Board Member





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