SEPTEMBER 15, 2014
IN THE FIRST chapter of Will Boast’s haunting memoir, Epilogue, we learn about his father’s death on a Wisconsin interstate from a ruptured ulcer that most likely had been killing him for days. Despite the fact that his car was equipped with a red “Help” button that would have connected him with emergency services, Boast’s father chose instead to pull over and wait to die. “My father,” Boast writes in the book’s opening sentence, “was never one to complain.”
By that point, Boast was no stranger to tragedy. His mother had died of a brain tumor a few months after he entered college, and his younger brother, Rory, was killed in a car accident almost exactly two years after that. The ulcer that killed his father just three years later was apparently brought on by sorrow and stress. “My father, with no other means of understanding or coping with the pain of Rory’s death, turned to the only medicine he knew. Broken by grief, unable to suffer more than he had already, he set to the business of drinking himself to death.”
This first chapter, aptly titled “Pain,” focuses on Boast’s father, a large-bodied English rugby player with a low tolerance for weakness. As children, Boast writes, he and his brother found their father irresistible and invincible; the physicality of the man is crisply evoked in Boast’s description of childhood games in which the boys try in vain to defeat him, though it turns out the writer is ultimately wrestling with himself. He spends much of the rest of the book struggling with the temptation to react to things as his father would, and this first chapter seems a lens through which to read and understand the reason and purpose of his book:
[My father] taught me that the worst, the weakest, the most shameful thing you could do was indulge your pain — swallow it down, don’t say a word. You didn’t talk about it; you certainly didn’t write about it. His methods killed him, but he did with his pain only what he’d been taught to do, all he knew how to do. Now the question remains: What will I do with mine?
Boast’s Epilogue is a beautiful and finely crafted memoir, one that recalls in its very construction the vortexes and whorls of grief, the ways that memory is a living thing and time marches forward. The book covers nearly the span of Boast’s life so far, recounts not only the story of his family and their losses, but also what happened after the death of his father. Most stunning is the discovery, among his father’s papers, of another family, a wife and two sons that his father left behind in England. In and around his account of memories and details of the family he has lost, Boast weaves the story of getting to know his two older half-brothers, and the tentative growth of a new sort of family.
The amazing accomplishment here is that these stories are told together and simultaneously. Boast allows loss to live alongside gain, just as it does in life. Each chapter of Epilogue is stand-alone, a complete entity with its own beginning, middle, and (nearly always devastating) end. They are little jewels of memory and feeling that seem to jump through time such that reading them all together can be as disorienting as it is enlightening. Certain aspects of the narrative are told and retold, echoing across the book as shouts off a cliff: the description of Boast’s childhood obsession with his father’s body, for example (“Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him — he wouldn’t even flinch”), comes back in cruel relief toward the end of the book when he tells of sleeping next to him the night they learned of Rory’s death: “I felt the bulk of him next to me, the heat of him. In the dark, I turned and turned, orbiting my father’s body. When he wept, I wept.”
Boast also spends a considerable amount of time imagining himself into the minds and hearts of lost family members; some of the most moving passages are fictional, as he wonders what it was like for his mother to leave her family behind in England to move to cold Wisconsin, or what it was like for his father to leave behind his first family and destroy all evidence of them so his second two sons would never know. These passages are moving in part because they underscore the impossibility of ever learning the answers. And for Boast, there are many such questions, not only for the dead but also for himself: How to carry all this heartbreak and not let it kill him? How to be marked by it in a way that is truthful and not corrosive? How to find a home in yourself when your real home and all the people in it are gone? For that matter, what is a home?
This last question is important and carries through from the start, when Boast describes the family’s move from England to Wisconsin when he was a boy; he never really felt Wisconsin was home, except that his family was there, a fact that becomes less and less compelling as family members dwindle and disappear. Throughout the memoir, Boast travels to England and back, seeking the place where he feels he most belongs but never quite finding it. At the end of the book, he returns to Wisconsin to visit the graves of his parents and his brother, and to close out his childhood savings account, where there is $13.23 remaining. It is a small but powerful detail for the reader, untethering us, as well as the writer, from this place where we have spent so much time.
Perhaps the most moving passage for this writer, having as much to do with my own losses as my penchant for novels and stories, was in the chapter titled “Archaeology,” where Boast describes his attempt to write fiction about his family, and specifically about his brother. He couldn’t, on the page, go through with killing Rory; instead he imagines that his brother made it to the party he was on his way to the night of his accident. There, in the fictional version, Rory meets a girl he likes, and Boast spends a few pages exploring their interaction, affecting because of the way that he imagines himself into his brother’s mind: he gives Rory thoughts of their parents and memories of their mother — a consciousness that the reader understands is a construction that comes from real knowing (the closeness of their relationship has been described in earlier sections). Eventually Boast imagines his brother out into the Wisconsin night, where Rory ends up lying on the ground and drifting into a kind of sleep with the girl pressing down on his chest to keep him alive:
She presses down, and the last of his breath rises out of him, just the faintest curl drifting up into the starless, skyless night. Then she lies down, takes him in her arms. No stars, no sky. No grass, no field. Only the girl and the ghost of my brother, their tiny figures huddled together, waiting for the story in which they are saved.
This is strong writing, and Boast doesn’t need to underscore the longing and the impossibility at its core. Throughout the book, he describes just enough to recall the enormity of his loss without overwhelming the reader. He never comes across as a hero, a phoenix rising from the ashes: instead he is a regular and flawed human being who has been delivered far too much pain and is now unsure what to do with it. “The story of my family,” Boast writes, “had come to an end. It was just me left, some kind of tacked-on epilogue that went pointlessly on and on.” The book thoroughly disproves this, not only because we know the story of his family has not ended, but also because if Boast himself is an epilogue, he is certainly not a pointless one. He has not swallowed his grief; it lives here as clear as can be. It is a truly rare feat for a book to both break your heart and make you wish it wouldn’t end: Epilogue does both. Boast has shown us life as it really is: beautiful, strange, cruel, surprising, and rarely so honestly explored.