This book is not for everyone. For me though, it was beautiful. Beautiful in its gutted heart and soul, its raw emotion, its incredibly precise writing, and its palpable heart ache. And its truth, according to David Payne in his recent memoir, Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story. It’s Payne’s story and his brother’s of growing up with an angry, alcoholic father, of playing favorites, and not being able to speak the truth. It’s of Payne’s brother, George A., with mental illness, his tragic death, and Payne’s own manic struggle to leave behind, then reconcile his family ties.
The book is dark. This is Payne’s therapeutic release from the guilt he has around his brother - not just his death, but in his life, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and having had several psychotic breakdowns. George A., as Payne describes wins by losing. That is, he gains the affection and attention of his divorced parents; attention Payne feels cheated of. Yet George A. earns this by breaking down. We see the brothers converge at family events and holidays, yet fade from each other’s lives in their separation, becoming two very different individuals - financial broker versus writer; conservative versus liberal; encircled by family versus trying to escape the family he was born into.
It is also Payne’s thrilling ride through self discovery, painful as it is - his exciting cross-country hitchhiking trips, women he’s fallen for and simply thought he’d fallen for, hyper-focused writing binges, problem with alcohol, and rocky marriage. Through all of it, Payne exposes his denial, guilt, anger, and self pity. If there is anything left, I imagine you’d be hard pressed to find it. It’s all there on the pages for his family and for us to see.
His story is unflinching, from beginning to end. The book’s name refers to a footrace the brothers ran to a pier near their beach house that seems to signify much of their relationship. The accompanying photo of his brother is a haunting reminder of their friendship, veiled rivalry, and Payne’s belief that he’s failed George A. as a big brother.
Payne’s writing in Barefoot to Avalon is sometimes lengthy, yet poetic. It seems appropriate for his state of mind which he openly invites us into. I found myself soaking up every word and rereading many passages as they resonated and helped to clarify my own experiences. The book is cloaked in sadness of loss - of two lives; but so wonderful is the experience of allowing this story to grip you, it’s well worth the read. I hope Payne has found peace in writing it.
Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press/Grove Atlantic
Vickie’s rating: 5 stars