GRIEF MEMOIRS tend to hit certain notes. The elegiac chords of loss, the white noise of mourning, the resonant bell of reawakening when the griever emerges from the depths of despair, scarred but stronger. Some of the most successful grief memoirs — Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Claire Bidwell Smith’s The Rules of Inheritance, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild — follow a satisfying trajectory of shattering loss, which leads to intense turmoil and, inevitably, redemption. There’s comfort in this arc. But what if it’s not the truth?
Two new personal histories, Lucas Mann’s Lord Fear and David Payne’s Barefoot to Avalon, struggle with questions of healing and recovery, refusing to make easy peace with the dead. Both men tell stories of brothers lost — Mann’s to heroin, Payne’s in a tragic car accident that he watched from his rearview mirror. From Cain and Abel onward, such stories about brotherhood have borne the yoke of archetype, each brother defined in contrast or in comparison to the other. In this vein, these books are not just grief memoirs, but reflections on how brothers challenge one another — and on what happens to the “winners” when they’ve outlived the competition.
Mann was just eight years old when his older half-brother Josh overdosed and died. Josh was, by turns, a sadistic bully and painfully insecure, funny and fearless, and spiraling toward self-destruction for as long as anyone can remember. Mann’s most vivid recollections of his big brother begin at the end: Josh, come home to detox, retching behind the bathroom door, and then, not long after, laid out in a plywood box at his funeral.
Through interviews with Josh’s loved ones and snippets from his journals (Josh was a self-proclaimed writer, always believing himself to be on the verge of greatness), Mann creates a stunning, and chilling, portrait of the brother he hardly knew. This type of investigation could easily slip into exploitation but doesn’t, because contained in the voice of the adult narrator is the yearning of the eight-year-old boy, who wonders, Why was my brother the way he was? Mann the boy demands an answer; Mann the adult understands he may never know. He reflects on the fraught nature of his quest after an interview with Josh’s former babysitter:
Memory is the back-and-forth pull between Philip and me, the struggle that hangs over the coffee table, each of us with a quiet need to be right. The problem is that no memory is entirely right, just as the meaning of the word can always change. And what I’m trying to do, let my memory of one life meet and mingle with others, is a flawed endeavor, pretending that a peace exists within acts that are not peaceful.
Josh was a boy who inspired, who deserved, love. No, he never was.
The book is not just concerned with reconstructing the life of a lost brother, but with how and why we seek to conjure the dead. Josh’s death cast a shadow over his entire life — a life thwarted before it could gain momentum. Lord Fear is Mann’s attempt to make his brother’s untimely death mean something significant, and in doing so, to imbue his own life with deeper meaning.
When a man dies alone in his underwear, high, without having first found stardom to squander, of course, his significance is easy to forget. […] And I suppose it’s common for the baby in the story to feel restlessness instead of sadness. To want the life remembered to be less common than every sign points to. Maybe that’s the most common thing of all, embarrassingly common: my impulse to want to know more only to confirm to myself that there was someone worth knowing…
If Josh casts a long shadow from afar, Payne’s younger brother, George A., would appear to be always just over his shoulder. Payne and George A. were just a few years apart, close enough in age for jocular competitiveness to define their early relationship. At the outset, Payne, the older, is the rebel and wayward writer who goes off to prep school, while George A. is a Virginia frat boy and football player who stayed closer to home.
Again and again, Payne returns to the barefoot race the brothers ran the summer before George A. started college. Though neck-and-neck throughout, George A. unexpectedly wins by a hair. For Payne, the race is both tipping point and metaphor: George A. appeared to be on a track to mainstream success — Payne himself was betting on him. But as he traces their past, the balance shifts. In college, George A. suffers his first breakdown, and his struggle with mental illness begins. While Payne publishes a successful first novel and sets up a home in Vermont, George A. finds himself divorced and living with his mother. Still, rather than mythologize their relationship, Payne shows how their roles are continuously shifting. In the end, he “wins” only by surviving. Yet it’s not winning, but having someone to race against that he thrives on, a revelation that sends him into a tailspin. After his brother’s death, there is no way to mark time or measure success:
George A.’s not a perfect person, but guess what, I’m not a perfect person either, as I expect you might have noticed. I’m not going to sentimentalize him — if I’m not a hero or a victim in this story, he doesn’t get to be one either — but it isn’t sentiment to say that his last act is an act of generosity. He flies up to help and gives eight days of his life to a brother who has made no secret of his disapproval, and those eight days prove to be George A.’s last ones, though of course neither of us knows it.
The account spills out in long, breathless sentences that wind from childhood and through a complicated coming of age to finish in those fatal moments on the road before the accident. (George A. had come to Vermont to help his brother pack up and move back to Virginia; they were driving home a two-car caravan.) Though the memoir is bookended with details of the crash, the reader doesn’t discover exactly what transpired until the very end. Of course, this makes the story all the more wrenching; George A. wasn’t necessarily going to get well, but there’s a current of hope running all the way through.
However, Payne’s relationship with his brother doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is part of a long family history of mental illness and the toxic silence that surrounds it. In the wake of George A.’s death, as Payne’s drinking increases, his own family life deteriorates. When he finally decides to write about his brother, it’s with the understanding that he doesn’t only need to tell George A.’s story, but to rewrite his own legacy as well.
September 10, 2006. George A.’s birthday. This morning at 8 A.M. I poured my vodka on the rosebush, time fifteen, give or take a couple. Today’s the day, I wrote, there is no other day but this. Will I succeed? I guess by six o’clock the verdict will be in. And here I sign my name in blood upon this contract with my children and the future.
In The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir about the death of her mother, she writes, “One of the grubby truths about a loss is that you don’t just mourn the dead person, you mourn the person you got to be when the lost one was alive.” So it is for the writers of Barefoot to Avalon and Lord Fear, who lose not only their brothers, not only themselves as they were, but also the people they could have been in a parallel life, but for a few different choices and a slight altering of the gene pool. Payne writes about his brother’s struggle with mental illness as unlucky; his family’s dark history was “the cup we hoped would pass,” but that came around for George A. to drink from. The question for each writer, then, is not how do you live without your brother, but how do you live without your shadow self?
It is strange, but no accident, that both authors were inspired by the original self-interrogator — Philip Roth. Both begin by quoting from The Counterlife, in which Roth’s stand-in, Nathan Zuckerman, grapples with the death of his brother, Henry. Payne’s epigraph, a conversation between Nathan and his brother’s wife, seems particularly apt:
“In a way brothers probably know each other better than they know anyone else.”
“How they know each other, in my experience, is as a kind of deformation of themselves.”
So it is with the brothers in each of these memoirs, each presented like a painting by Picasso. The body and mind are portrayed from unexpected angles and multiple perspectives. As authors, Payne and Mann have narratives to shape; but as brothers, they function as prisms, each refracting his brother’s story this way and that. And it is only through these reflections, distorted though they might be, that the writers come to better know themselves.
As for that facile assumption about writing grief, that purging a story onto the page will lead to catharsis and closure, neither of these books offers a straight path to solace. Rather, in their willingness to loop endless tracks around their most painful memories, Payne and Mann repeatedly open their wounds. But the flip side of being close to death is feeling achingly alive; their losses, though tragic, have kept both authors grounded and grateful. Neither gives his readers the sense of an ending in his final pages, but as they shift from investigation to meditation, both David Payne and Lucas Mann let the reader understand that brotherhood is a negotiation that continues well beyond the grave.
Alizah Salario is a freelance journalist and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, The New York Observer, New York Magazine’s Vulture blog, at the Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere.