With The Afterlife, a brutally honest memoir of his childhood and awkward role as the “true husband” of his volatile, alcoholic mother, the stack of books by Donald Antrim now rises to the height of a single volume of Proust. Books are first and foremost objects for Antrim, and while the narrator of his debut novel Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993) may have an encyclopedic knowledge of torture—his campaign for mayor involves drawing and quartering the incumbent with cars instead of horses, and he keeps a scale model Spanish Inquisition torture chamber in his basement—he lobs actual volumes of Shakespeare and Robert Frost to clear the local park of land mines. The only books cracked in Antrim’s calmly manic second novel The Hundred Brothers (1997) are pornography, while Intellectual History and other sections of their library and human history are markers on a wide receiver’s route during an indoor football game. (Introducing all 100 brothers in the novel’s opening sentence, Antrim wins the prize for best use of “fucker” by finally describing their father thus.) Ideas are flimsy attempts to dress up our crass reality, as when Tom the psychoanalyst narrator of The Verificationist (2000) hides emptying his bowels by loudly lecturing his wife about the ways in which people project their own worst qualities onto those around them.
The memoir’s title refers to the only place where Antrim’s terminally ill mother may be recognized as an “original and subversive artist.” Solace in this life comes from the voices of Jesus and the Virgin Mary in her head, Merlin her cat (and reincarnation of the Arthurian necromancer), and the hope that her artist son will not reject and abandon her like every other man. “I was, I suppose, never to leave her for another woman,” he writes. “I was never to lie to or deceive her.” Tall and vain with hair brushed to appear unbrushed, Louanne Antrim is a deeply spiritual and hostile fashion designer whose masterpiece, a kimono with metallic birds and coins and “purposefully crazy” patches on the front and an enormous paper butterfly on the back, frightens her family: “She showed us her work. We fled.” Haunted by the memory of her own domineering mother, a health nut who may have subjected her to unnecessary surgeries, Louanne upon her death declares that she is free to live her life at last, only to be diagnosed with lung cancer. Antrim by comparison imagines his dead mother floating behind him on the steps of the New York Public Library. He becomes Louanne in the months after her death by sulking and smoking in his apartment, and channels her with harsh criticisms of his own drinking and failed relationships, his angry tennis serve which wrecks his shoulder, and his inability to give himself a break.
Antrim’s family’s successes are small, strange, debatable. His alcoholic uncle Eldridge achieves a balanced diet by eating one and only one entrée every month—scallops in March, spaghetti in April, flounder in May. His father teaches literature and his library gives young Antrim a physical and emotional refuge from his parents’ fights, but when asked about a book, his father “might nod his head and utter a noncommital word before turning away, as if my curiosity embarrassed him.” Conversely, Antrim can’t say no when asked to help his mother’s boyfriend determine if a dirty, dark landscape is actually a da Vinci. “When you are, as I was—and as I am—the anxious child of a volatile, childlike mother, you learn how to appear to accept, as realistic and viable, statements and opinions that are clearly ludicrous.” Antrim writes like a man defusing a bomb—one false move and he and his family will be destroyed. “Heartbreakingly deliberate work,” he describes his grandfather cutting good windows out of warped and rotted frames—a scene which teaches Antrim the “beauty in labor” and results in windows that “slid up and down at a touch.”
Antrim has reportedly revised his manuscripts by putting the pages up on his walls and walking around editing (as opposed to Proust lining his bedroom with cork), a fitting way to write about characters whose trips for pancakes or a cocktail became book-length imbroglios. So does the act of “going to buy a great bed and do some fucking” turn disastrous as Antrim spends $7,000 for a mattress which makes him feel ” ‘relaxed’ in a way that is actually alarming,” which doesn’t write his book or fix his relationship with his girlfriend, and in which he feels his mother pulling him “down into the bed to die with her.” Stripped of his novels’ clever flights of fancy—Tom spends most of The Verificationist flying around a pancake house, trying to entice a pretty young waitress to join him on the ceiling even as he’s being bear-hugged by a fellow shrink in an act of “metaphoric patriarchal rape”—The Afterlife opens a new window into Antrim’s genius.