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Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story


Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story

The memoir of the year.

I’d bet you’ll agree.

If you read it.

Is BAREFOOT TO AVALON sad? Try heartbreaking. And not just because David Payne’s 42-year-old brother, George A., dies in a crash in 2000 as he’s helping David drive his possessions to his new home --- that’s just the disaster that inspired the book. There are more. Many more: the entire history of the Payne family.

These are damaged people who wreck their lives and wound their kids. The people who come after them swear they’re going to be different. Then they fall into the same destructive behavior.

And it’s not just the Paynes.

Reading about them, you can’t help but think about your own family. The price of not turning into your parents --- it requires constant vigilance, but maybe you slipped up, because here you are, brutalizing your kids just like your parents brutalized you. The way you treat your spouse --- does it remind you of anybody? Was there drinking in your family --- and now, how much do you drink? Like that. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

This is David, about his marriage: “We’ve failed and ended in a state of warfare with the person we know best and love or once loved deeply, and I don’t know how that happened or how we got here.”

This is David, about his drinking: “A one-drink night now constitutes a victory. And ‘one’ now means three jiggers --- four and a half ounces --- of 80-proof Burnett’s on cubes in a double old-fashioned glass, a quarter-cupful of dry vermouth, two olives, maybe three. (More often than not, “one triple doesn’t do it.”)

This is David, making dinner for his kids, hearing that they don’t want rice and beans: “Get your ass upstairs! Goddamnit, you disrespectful little shit, do you hear me, get upstairs this minute!” (And here is his wife, giving him the look that says: “Who are you? What’s wrong with you? What happened to you in your childhood?”)

"The memoir of the year. I’d bet you’ll agree.... For the sake of all who are precious to you, people, read this book."

That last is the question, isn’t it? And David knows it:

The thing I thought could never happen has: I’ve become my father, annihilating Will the way Bill once upon a time annihilated George A. and me. And though some puny voice inside whines “It’s different! It’s different!” it really isn’t different… And the only difference there can ever be between me and him is in the future, if I change it the way he didn’t.

And there’s a part of me that’s scared, but underneath fear, as if something I’ve longed for and despaired would never happen is finally going to, I’m going to tell the truth.

And you see, I’ve fancied myself a truth teller all along, fancied I’d been telling it for twenty five years in fiction, speaking about myself, my loves, my family relationships, wearing various masks and straining it through various filters. But today I realize I wasn’t. I’ve kept who I really am a secret, not just from the world, but from myself. And now I think I have to tell it, whether or not anyone is listening.

That is strong stuff. The people who love David Payne’s novels aren’t nuts.

But David Payne, as writers do in the more polite memoirs, isn’t going to unpeel the onion; he’s going to rip off his skin. And the skin of others. Pain lurks.

Here, in brief, is the story, with the spoilers --- the outcomes --- omitted.

Start with the cover. That’s young George A., who’d make 11 tackles in one high school football game. Who’d become the youngest broker in the Buckhead office of Merrill Lynch. Then Bipolar I kicked in with, as the manual says, “severe, psychotic features.” Between hospitalizations, he lives with his mother, smoking Winstons and heading off to the kind of bar he’d never patronize in his glory years. And that’s the story of the last 25 years of his life.

And here’s David, who got a ticket out: admission to Exeter. But in Boston, the night before his parents drop him off at prep school, his father recites “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and assaults his wife. “When you want good things and reach to take them,” David concludes, “bad things happen.”

Not entirely. There are college romances. Summer seductions. Fantasies of becoming a poet. Writing a book, getting published. And again.

Then the bill comes due. Busted romances. An abortion. A book is rejected, payback demanded of the large advance, already spent. Drinking. And the old family sickness: “hostile dependency, by which the weak and sick and injured depend on and hold the strong ones hostage, and the strong ones, in the name of goodness and self-sacrifice, help the weak and disable them entirely.”

The fatal crash? We were told about it in the beginning, but Payne doesn’t tell that story, second by second, until page 247. The actual death is fast, thus merciful. The prose is a white knuckle nail biter.

And then the epilogue. David and his kids, a dinner scene --- but not the same scene. The vodka bottle --- but not the same bottle. And then three words. Just three. And I burst into tears.

For the sake of all who are precious to you, people, read this book.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth for on September 11, 2015

Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story
by David Payne

  • Publication Date: August 9, 2016
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802125174
  • ISBN-13: 9780802125170