Mommy, Dearest Memoir From a Talented Novelist

In his surrealist fiction, Donald Antrim likes to send up human failing, nudging the anxieties of flawed, hyper-aware characters into the realm of the absurd. His neurotic protagonists want to be liked, despite their own misanthropy. And their impulses—whether they involve torturing and murdering a little girl ( Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World) or levitating to the ceiling of a 24-hour pancake house to observe the passive-aggressive sniping of academic colleagues ( The Verificationist)—are often sick, sympathetic and ridiculous. The author of these slim, disturbing novels always seemed a little bruised.

The Afterlife, a collection of essays about Mr. Antrim’s mother, strips away the wackiness and ponders the bruise. The essays, many of which appeared in similar form in The New Yorker, work to explore, explain and even purge the hold she has on him even now, six years after her death.

Free from chronology, the chapters rush with memories and anecdotes of his Southern childhood, some wistful, others piercingly resentful. “I could not imagine life without my mother. And it was true as well that only without her would I feel able to live,” he writes. Taken as a whole, the book is an impressive, poignant jumble—which sometimes reads like an insightful monologue from a man on his psychologist’s couch.

Louanne Antrim was 65 when she died in 2000, after a year battling cancer and four decades of hard living. A Southern beauty who married her high-school sweetheart (Mr. Antrim’s father, a literature professor), she would tenderly massage young Donald when he suffered an asthma attack (“I remember feeling that she was squeezing the fear right out of me”). She was also a chronic alcoholic who would subject her family every night to a “terrifying Jekyll-and-Hyde transmutation,” screaming, tumbling and spitting vitriol. “The story of my mother’s lifelong deterioration is, in some respects, the story of her life,” Mr. Antrim writes. “The story of my life is bound up in this story, the story of her deterioration.” He’s clearly unsure about how to mourn his mother, a woman whose mercurial love did as much harm as good.

The first essay is a doozy, a messy brew of anger, resentment and psychoanalytical hoo-ha. His mother has just died—Mr. Antrim himself delivered the final dose of morphine—and he writes with jagged severity, rattled with grief and rage. “Her power to drive people away was staggering. She behaved spitefully and was divisive in her short-lived relationships with the similarly disenfranchised people who became her friends. Her laughter was abrasive, sometimes even frightening. She chewed with her mouth open, often spilling food down her front.” There’s lots more, and all of it feels very raw. He’s trying to explain how his mother’s death led him to buy a $7,000 Swedish mattress, a decision that he recognizes as crazy, but about which he writes with a certain masochistic relish. Refusing to draw a flattering self-portrait, he describes himself as a silly, untethered, emotionally poisoned man, “a man whose need for love and sympathy had led him to telephone a Swedish executive in the middle of the morning.”

The subsequent chapters haphazardly fill the gaps with stories that explain his lost innocence and his awkward detachment from his mother at the end of her life. A resident of New York since the 1980’s, Mr. Antrim’s childhood was spent in the humid South, mostly in Florida. The passages about this regional landscape are often lavish, fragrant and far away, as when he writes of “a realm of tannin-black rivers and crystal springs; of live, unpolluted oyster beds two feet under the shallow bay and estuary waters.” It’s in this lush heat that his family falls apart. His parents, who get divorced, remarry and then divorce again (their love a mystery Mr. Antrim never solves), would fight bitterly every night, while his mother’s drinking grew “operatically suicidal.” His family (he has a younger sister) would hobble from home to home, each time hoping to shake the curse of the last rental. “We would go into the new rooms and paint the walls and uncrate the books and dust off the flower cases … knowing that once the chairs were arranged in the new living room and the beds in the new bedrooms had been made, it would come again.”

But it’s not melodrama, somehow. Instead, it reads as if Mr. Antrim is really trying to figure out why, after all the grand betrayals and minor indignities, he’ll find himself talking to his mother, years after her death, in a stairwell at the New York Public Library. This is a surprisingly beautiful moment: He describes discussing “out loud (though not too loudly)” some problem they had, imagining her floating somewhere near the ceiling; “‘Mom!’ I said, and, as I called out to her, I did not glance over my shoulder, and I did not, in that passing instant, dare to see, at a modest height above the ground—my mother, not there.” Unexpected feelings of real, bone-shaking loss—grief for a mother who will never be “there” again—are what make the book much more than an excavation of family dysfunction.

At other times, Mr. Antrim writes about his mother in a snarling way, bristling at her absurdist kimonos bedecked with ribbons, chafing at her humiliating antisocial behavior. And yet Afterlife is a reconciliation of sorts, one that’s possible only now that she’s dead. He describes a visit with his mother when she was sick, one that began with him accusing her of stealing and ended with him praying that she would “not die, not ever die.” After he returned to New York, he discovered that a jar of honey he’d packed in his luggage had been smashed to pieces during the flight: “Honey and shattered glass were everywhere”—an apt description of this memoir about a man trying to come to terms with a mother he can’t help but love, especially now that she can’t inflict fresh bruises.

Emily Bobrow is an editor at Economist.com.