The cover of The Afterlife features the black-and-white photograph of a young woman in sharp profile -- a woman who is clear-eyed and smiling: the very picture of health. It's a photograph (from the mid-1950s?) of a woman named Louanne Antrim, and the placement of the image, running full across the top of the book's jacket, is no accident: There she is, angelic, looking down on the title and the name of the author, Donald Antrim, Louanne's only son.
The Afterlife, however, is no picture of health, and Louanne Antrim was no angel. It is a memoir that, in the space of a single page, describes her as "paranoid," "abrasive," and "frightening." Her power to drive people away: "staggering"; her alcoholism: "operatically suicidal."
Suicide wasn't, however, the cause of her death. Lung cancer, in 2000, was. And in the weeks and months that followed, the author did what a loving, exasperated fortysomething son knew he had to do: He shopped for a new mattress. And he bought no ordinary mattress. Antrim got himself a Dux from Sweden, costing close to 7,000 bucks, but he had the right idea: "At last," he remembers thinking, "I'm free of that woman! Now I'm going to buy a great bed and do some fucking and live my life." But he had no idea: "What followed," he also remembers, "was a workshop in hysteria."
The bed was too springy, Antrim felt. The bed was too "reverberant," he declared. "When you're on the bed. When you're in the bed. You feel too much. I feel too much," he explained, not to his girlfriend (who'd heard enough) but to the perplexed president of Dux Interiors. So Antrim returned the bed.
No returning, though, the East Tennessee mother Antrim was born to. And no getting around Antrim's shadowy, English-professor father, who married Louanne -- twice. Or his Uncle Eldridge, who started life as a painter and ended life as another alcoholic (and borderline child molester; the object: the author). Or his mother's boyfriend (after her second divorce, after she joined AA, after she went New Age), a man who thinks he possesses a landscape by Leonardo Da Vinci but a man well on his way to totally off his rocker.
A succession of horror stories? Clearly. But does that make The Afterlife payback time? Not so fast. Better to call it dedication time by an adult son coming to love-hate grips with a family that (shades of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey) "night after night, year after year, apologizes itself out of existence."
That's a memorable description by novelist turned memoirist Donald Antrim, and if you doubt any of Antrim's dark details, consider The New Yorker, where portions of The Afterlife first appeared. The fact checkers at that magazine don't stand for half-truths, and the editors don't go for third-rate tell-alls.