Coming to terms with monsters is Payne’s devotion
by Rob Neufeld
Payne begins with his younger brother, George A., revealing himself as bipolar at age 18 and died at age 42; and then delves into family dynamics and inheritance. In the process, we get to see the hidden forces that drive Payne’s fiction.
You might call these forces personal demons, original sins, or shadow selves. When they come from inside you, they seem like illness. Coming from outside, they feel like enchantments.
To speak plainly, they’re the things that influence you in a bad way without you being able to do much about it.
In Payne’s case, we are talking about a special set: his father’s unfulfilled promise, anger, and self-mythologizing; George A.’s haunting legacy; their mother’s poisoned kindness, rewarding losers and expecting downfall for winners; and other points in the Payne family constellation.
The thing that gives monsters a lot of power—and dramatic potential—is that people are blind to their own most horrifying afflictions, and hide them from the world. To pin them down, one must assemble clues.
“My unconscious has featured me as the detective who must solve the crime,” Payne states in “Barefoot to Avalon,” interpreting a dream he’d had watching a car with a corpse in back being pulled out of a swamp. On the job, Payne seeks answers to his brother’s demise, including evidence of his own and his family’s complicity.
The understanding of personality as a Jekyll-and-Hyde mix has been a fixture for Payne throughout his career.
His fourth novel, “Gravesend Light,” features an ethnographer who searches people “for the hidden tic, the thing that you don’t say about yourself, because you can’t or won’t, or because you just don’t know. When it came to ferreting out that revealing clue, he was a veritable Sherlock Holmes; when the subject was himself, a Watson.”
One day in a hotel room on a 2006 book tour, Payne was raising a triple martini to his lips after having concluded a birthday call to his six-year-old son, Will, when he heard a voice.
“It’s time to write about George A.,” the voice said, speaking “right aloud there, bell-clear. And the hair rose on my forearms, and I leaped up as well as my bad knees will leap now and wrote it down on a half sheet of foolscap and knew I’d been assigned my next book, and I dated it because I was afraid I might forget it if I didn’t.”
Payne’s mother was not okay with the project; so the pressure was on. Payne better come up with something worth all the damage he’d be doing by going public. He had to commit.
“Could it be,” he writes, at the start, “that the story of George A. is the doorway that opens into something bigger that includes me also, some kind of building, perhaps a church or even a cathedral...Or is the door that opens through George A. not to a church or a cathedral after all, but to a charnel house or an asylum?”
One of the distinctive aspects of Payne’s fiction is his forensic exploration of family history. Madness is material. Also distinctive is the way he keeps themes and memories swirling on every page.
I mean, every page. The best way to show this is to go to the book.
Chapter 3 of “Barefoot to Avalon” dwells on the year, 1975, when 17-year-old George A. beat 20-year-old David in a footrace from their Outer Banks house to the Avalon Fishing Pier.
This is one year before George A.’s first bipolar episode. And it’s the time commemorated by the photo on the book’s front cover.
Previously, Chapter 1 had dealt with the year 2000, when George A. had helped David move back to North Carolina from Vermont, and then had died in a car accident on the way. Chapter 2 had opened on 2006, when Payne had heard the injunction to write.
Both chapters backflow to the 1980s, when David and George A. both had had high-riding periods of success.
After Chapter 3, the memoir moves, in a generally chronological way from 1969, when David had gone to Exeter Academy to remove him from his father’s mindset, to the book’s conclusion in 2006—with many fateful twists in between.
Summer of ‘75
Let’s settle a few pages into Chapter 3, when David and George A. are hanging out in their lair at their parents’ beach house.
George A. has been working a sanitation job and playing African-American blues on the Gibson guitar he asked for and got from their mom, who’s newly remarried.
David has a job at the Nags Header Hotel, recently “taken over by two thirtysomething guys from upstate, one of whom walks through each morning dispensing designer stardust with a backhand papal wave, the other limping close behind, bent under large but leaking bags of family money.”
This is not a gratuitous snipe. The satire allows Payne to expand on how he feels apart from the other summer employees, which leads to reflections about his parents, Bill and Margaret, their “apocalyptic” divorce, and Bill’s wanderings.
George A. recalls walking into Bill’s motel room one time to find him switching the sink faucets so they wouldn’t look like inverted crosses.
David, whose many literary references include Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom” and Tolstoy’s “A Confession,” inserts Dr. Seuss.
“Some are sad. And some are glad. And some are very, very bad. Why are they sad and glad and bad? I do not know. Go ask your dad.”
The passage is from “One Fish Two Fish,” a copy of which George A.’s widow, Colleen, would pass on to David, with the “ask dad” lines, he’d notice, marked with florid borders.
“Did George A. do it when he was manic?” Payne wonders about the markings. Or perhaps the highlighting was a product of an earlier tremor, when the Payne boys had “diverged from our eastern North Carolina peers’ before I went away to Exeter.”
Is Payne a Holmes or a Watson; a Jekyll or a Hyde? He is someone who, like his brother, latches onto certain episodes as being standout signifiers. Is he a genius or a lost soul?
Later in Chapter 3, Payne recalls his trip to Exeter. His parents drove him and the experience included a Boston hotel stay that became an undeniable watershed. Payne is not exaggerating the significance of this moment; therefore, the performance that his father had put on when the school decision had been made lives on as a mind-trip.
Bill recited T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to David. It’s his anthem: “I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker.”
Reading Payne, his fiction or non-fiction, you become alert to the paradigms—or self-fulling stories—that people embrace.
Such myths emerge in the marriage of Payne and his wife, Stacy; and divide them. David sees himself resisting being trapped by Stacy, as his father had been by Margaret. Stacy leaves him to take her children home to her mother and sister, living out the unpublished play she had written about independent women for whom men are accessories.
It’s all about fate, “the dark force.”
“Barefoot to Avalon” yields many solutions to the pull of tragedy. David makes a bold choice to leave his Vermont dream house and rejoin Stacy. He drinks a lot, and then reforms. He learns a lesson from his son about not expecting frustration and not being angry. His writing retrieves a jewel of enlightenment from the mud of muddled relationships.
The very end of the memoir is, I think, a letdown—David sees George A. crossing the finish line in the next world, and expects to join him. There is no build-up for this kind of religiosity. I am puzzling over my judgment about this, however. The deep pain of losing a brother would, for sure, result in the wish for an afterlife. But what are other possible endings for a book that puts so much on the line?
A little before the conclusion, we read one of them. David is dwelling on what George A. had said to him when George A. had climbed into the Explorer that would be his death vehicle.
“You’re a good brother,” David had told George A., who cryptically responded, “It’s okay, David.” George A., the “loser” in the family drama of not being thwarted wanted to heal David, still riddled with the sickness.
David Payne present his memoir, “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story,” 7 p.m., Wed., at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, 55 Haywood St., Asheville (254-6734).