Friday, August 28, 2015

Book Review: "Barefoot to Avalon" by David Payne

I first stumbled upon David Payne's writing when I read his second novel, Early from the Dance, in 1989. That book about the dazzling and paralyzing power of friendship utterly captivated me, and there was a brief moment of folly where I was interested in optioning it for a film adaptation, but as a poor college student, nothing came of that. However, I became a Payne fan for life, reading his first book (Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street) and every subsequent book as it was released.

Even loving Payne's writing didn't prepare me for the powerful emotions he conveyed in Barefoot to Avalon, the story of George A., his younger brother, who was killed in a car accident while helping David move from his home in Vermont to his new home in North Carolina. While George A. appeared to have many things David didn't while they were growing up—an easy confidence, athletic grace, a drive to succeed—he also suffered from bipolar disorder and manic depression, which derailed his life multiple times, threatening to ruin any successes he was able to achieve.

Barefoot to Avalon is not only the story of a sibling rivalry that lasted long into adulthood, it's the story of mental illness and alcoholism that pervaded many generations of Payne's family on both sides. It's also the story of Payne's own resentments, fears, and inadequacies, about his relationships with his family members, the women in his life, and later, his children. For while everyone knew of George A.'s struggles, David was nearly incapacitated numerous times by his own, putting his career, his relationships, and his family at risk.

"How much of [George A's] incapacitation is bipolar I disorder, and how much is the old family sickness, hostile dependency, by which the weak and sick and injured depend upon 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?"

If you've ever struggled to figure where you fit in your family, resented parents or siblings for neglecting you or appearing to favor another over you, this book will resonate. And if you have unresolved guilt about a failed relationship with a family member, this book will probably hit you hard. As you might imagine from the subject matter, this is a book of deep, sometimes painful introspection, and exploration of how our family history and family dynamics have a role in helping us soar as well as prompting us to sink.

While I'm the oldest of four, my two brothers are both much younger than I am, so we didn't have the relationship or the rivalries that David and George A. had when they were growing up. But even so, some of the issues David confronted and told about in the book rang true for me and moved me quite a bit. This is a heavy book, sometimes getting tangled in its own words and emotions, but ultimately it is a book of healing and hope, one that I felt privileged to experience.

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