Barefoot to AvalonIn the beginning, when novelist David Payne heard the voice in his head urging him to write about his younger brother who had died six years earlier, his “first thought was that it might be something wistful, elegiac, something like A River Runs Through It.”

His mother, who knew better, begged him not to.

But Payne was drowning. “My single-jigger vodka had become a double and I was often having double doubles and, on bad days, triple doubles…” His marriage was on the rocks, and worst of all, he had become his father: a manipulative, angry husband who drank.

“Everything I vowed not to repeat I have repeated,” he realized, and the life he had built in Vermont to escape his past had begun to look a lot like what he was running from. So he set to work on the story that began long before his brother, George A., volunteered to help Payne move back to North Carolina in 2000.

Their relationship was fraught with jealousy, rivalry and David’s long-standing resentment of George A.’s dependency on their mother as a result of a bipolar disorder that left him unable to work. But they had bonded again during the week of packing up David’s belongings.

“We picked it up where we’d dropped it somewhere long before, as if no time had passed at all. In the middle of a bad thing, I got my brother back.” And then, on the second day of their drive, David watched helplessly in his rear view mirror as his brother’s car and trailer jack-knifed across the interstate, and George A. was killed.

Out of that day, and the grief, guilt and desperation that followed, comes Barefoot to Avalon (Atlantic Monthly Press, $27, 304 pages) a memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka. The story is loosely chronological, though Payne lays out much of what’s to come in the opening chapters, then goes back, relentlessly and often, to gather evidence in an attempt to understand George A.’s illness and “who my brother was and who we were together.”

Between Payne’s revisiting of the wreck, which bookends the memoir, he opens the vein of his family relationships with unswerving, bitter intensity. He examines his childhood and his parents’ marriage — a grim and violent affair marked by his father’s drinking, threats and broken promises — for clues to his brother’s madness and his own demons.

The narrative follows George A.’s repeated episodes — “manic highs followed by protracted, crippling depressions” — beginning with the first at 17, the last in 1991, when he was 33. Though years passed during which he was “seemingly normal and high-functioning,” each new episode was more evidence that he might one day never recover.

Yet Payne expected him to, always. What he didn’t expect was that his own life would crash just as ferociously, that he could not outrun the family curse. And that the only way to break the spell would be “to write about George A.”

David Payne

David Payne

Payne, a North Carolina native and founding member of the Queens University MFA Program in Charlotte, has written five novels, including Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street (1984) and the autobiographical Ruin Creek (1993). His memoir is novelistic in its flashbacks, fluid time and poetic echoes — passages that repeat verbatim, pointing the reader to key scenes in Groundhog Day fashion.

At times, the prose seems more ranted than written, an avalanche of thoughts and memories in which no metaphor is too grand to describe the agonizing journey they’re all on: a spaceship adrift, the sinking Titanic, a voyage to the bottom of the sea, the Iran hostage crisis, a crime scene, WW II.

He blames family dysfunction — his father’s a hustler who pits his sons against each other, his mother a helpless enabler; toss in alcoholism, insanity and suicide on the maternal side — for the “black hole” of need his brother turns into. Desperate to see George A. as curable, he chalks his brother’s disorder up to “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.”

Believing himself passed over for the parental love and approval his brother won with ease, Payne plays Cain to his brother’s Abel, nursing a sense of injustice matched only by his equally monumental guilt. Not until he goes back far enough and often enough does he begin to see beyond his grievances; his story, which has been operating in the dark, finally opens into the light of self-awareness:

“… I’ve fancied myself a truth-teller all along, fancied I’d been telling it for 25 years in fiction, speaking about myself, my life, my loves, my family relationships, wearing various masks and straining it through various filters. But suddenly today I realize I wasn’t. I’ve kept who I really am a secret, not just from the world, but from myself. And now I think I have to tell it ….”

In a heartbreaking epilogue, Payne recognizes that “the truth which I resisted longest and found most shaming … feels like my treasure, a jewel, if a dark one.” His barefoot journey, every brave and bloody step over broken glass, shows how even the darkest emotions and deepest wounds can yield to love.


David Payne will be appearing at the Decatur Book Festival on Saturday, September 5, with Atlanta author Jessica Handler (Invisible Sisters, Braving the Fire), to discuss their memoirs and the impact of illness—physical and mental—on their lives and the lives of their families. From 10:00–10:45 a.m. at the First Baptist Church of Decatur at the corner of Clairemont and Commerce.




Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob MarleySeven years after her acclaimed novel, Strange as this Weather Has BeenAnn Pancake returns with a bravura collection of short fiction, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley.

In two novellas and nine stories largely set in her native West Virginia, Pancake explores the consequences of one of the most brutal industries in America — coal mining — and its collateral damage: poverty, drug abuse, domestic abuse, suicide, child neglect, alcoholism and violence.

What a joy it is to hear her wild, true-blue voice again. Now based in Seattle, Pancake grew up in Romney, a town that in so many ways — all of them portrayed here, in these keenly felt tales about the loss of Appalachian identity and culture — she has never left.

The book opens with “In Such Light,” a novella about a troubled college freshman desperate to escape her rural background. Home for the summer, by day, Janie’s a “popcorn girl” at a once-glamorous theater; by night she hangs out with her mentally disabled uncle Bobby and his neighbor, a local bad-boy with a mean streak Janie mistakes for sensitivity.

Though she relies on Bobby for company, his freakish behavior and peculiar speech patterns embarrass Janie, who sees in them reflections of her own limitations. In both characters, Pancake hints at the damning legacy of Big Coal’s greed and waste. Janie’s impressions of the still functioning parts of her uncle’s brain, though, evoke an enduring ethos no amount of environmental devastation can wipe out:

“Some parts had melted in the heat … tarnished and clotted together like clock guts after a fire — the part that did numbers, the part that managed cause and effect, the part that gauged how funny things really were — while other parts in that dark crowded space still gleamed and whirred, unscathed — the part that could sustain a conversation, the part sensitive to her grandmother’s tireless social skill drills, the part that remembered things.”

As the weeks pass, her uncle’s poignant search for companionship and love reconcile Janie to values buried deep in their shared past. Their relationship, like so many others in Me and My Daddy, echoes the characters’ unbreakable attachment to the land and to family.

All of Pancake’s characters undergo some form of haunting. In the endearing “Mouseskull,” 10-year-old Lainey wears the still-decaying titular skull round her neck as an amulet against the ghosts that haunt her family home, with its “few rooms that comfort, many that scare” — including the one her grandfather killed himself in several years earlier.

In “Arsonists,” two retired strip miners try to cope with paralyzing PTSD, a result of the coal company’s mountain-top removal blasting and the mysterious house fires that have followed. Their town, once a place “that used to make things, not chemicals, electricity, gasoline, but things you could actually touch,” can no longer support life.

The uncle of a young girl in “Rockhounds” obsesses over his belief that the family dogs are dying after drinking the poisonous run-off from fracking. In “Honeyvines,” a local camp counselor who responds to the needy, “hug thirsty” children from an underprivileged community is wrongly accused of inappropriate touching by a well-meaning but clueless outsider.

The title story presents the cockeyed world of a 3-year-old boy spending the day with his meth-addicted father in an unheated house where Dad sits and smokes “his nerve medicine.” The visit culminates in a betrayal that leaves the boy clinging to the only “real world” he knows, populated by his toy Power Rangers, trying, like so many of Pancake’s characters, to find a voice for sorrow so great it feels like “stones cracking … walls unsealing.”

Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake

Pancake counts fellow West Virginians Breece D’J Pancake (they are distantly related) and Jayne Anne Phillips as two of her biggest influences. Like them, she honors the people of Appalachia without prettying them up or dumbing them down. The inventive language found in this collection — a heady, jostling mix of words that feel new-minted and old at once — conveys the richness of the language she grew up with.

“Him. Helling up a hillside in thin snow won’t melt, rock-broke, brush-broke, crust-cracking snow throat felt,” begins one story. Characters are “raptured” by certain scents; a grandfather has “sniftered” a secret “without being told.” Dread comes witch-fingering” in; a character’s throat is “stobbed up” with grief. The last child in a family is described as “that ruint runt of Revie’s four boys. End piece didn’t come right.”

In this “land being destroyed faster and more spectacularly than almost anywhere else in the besieged United States,” you might think there couldn’t be much left to celebrate. “It was the emptiest place he’d ever felt,” thinks one character, wondering “how you could kill a piece of ground without moving it anywhere.”

But Pancake, the seventh generation of her family to grow up there, kindles a spirit still powerfully alive, surviving amid the wreckage. The stories in Me and My Daddy end on hopeful notes, her characters triumphing in small ways, quietly reconnecting their broken parts — because “still the land sings” to them and in them.

“And not just a singing,” she writes, “but louder, stronger, I tell you, every month it gets easier to hear. Because — listen — when everything is losing, everything is lightening, the distance between us thins and sheds. This is what loss gives. In these delicate, sharp, and beautiful, these brilliant unraveling days.”


(This review ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 21 2015.)

For more background on Ann Pancake, see this interview she did for the Point Reyes Light. To read an earlier version of “Mouseskull,” from the Georgia Review (Vol. 65, Winter 2011), go here.

Rain, Cynthia BarnettIt’s raining as I write this, a drumming, crashing downpour that sounds like it could float the house away. In central Texas, that’s exactly what it’s doing, in a record-breaking downfall that has caused catastrophic destruction and loss while simultaneously bringing relief to the area’s years-long drought.

Which makes it an appropriate day to be reading environmental journalist Cynthia Barnett’s captivating new microhistory, Rain: A Natural and Cultural History (Crown Publishers, $25, 368 pages).

In the British Isles, says Barnett, this type of torrential rain “[comes] down in stair rods.” In Denmark, it’s “raining shoemakers’ apprentices,” in Greece, “chair legs,” or “wheelbarrows” in the Czech Republic. Here in the American South, where there are more than 170 descriptions of rain, it might be “a tub soaker, log mover, a lighterd knot floater, a milldam buster, [or] a potato bed soaker.”

Whatever you call it, the vapor that fights to stay alive in earth’s fiery atmosphere in Rain‘s cinematic prologue survives to become a fascinating player in our global history. Barnett charts its effects on civilization from the rise and fall of ancient cultures to the climate shifts that brought plague and famine to Europe, from the origins of weather forecasting and “modification” up through America’s parched Dust Bowl years, and ending with the latest urban efforts to trap rain and purify it in an era of increasing shortages.

A veritable cloudburst of everything-you-didn’t-know-about-rain make this highly readable, science-laden biography anything but dry. We learn that the scent of rain comes from the “metallic zing” of ozone; that the familiar smell of earthy streets after rain comes from a compound called geosmin. Barnett traces the development of the mackintosh back to its beginnings as a fabric coated with a soupy mix of “shredded rubber [and] naptha,” and she profiles at length that most inventive charlatan, the traveling rainmaker of the drought-ridden 1930s.

In explaining climate extremes such as the five-century long “Little Ice Age,” she describes the gruesome fate of “thousands of accused witches” held responsible for “the devilish rains, snows, freezes, floods, harvest failures … and other miseries that plagued Europe” between 1560 and 1660.

And she sets straight our cartoonish grasp of rain’s appearance: It’s no drop of water hanging from a faucet “with a pointed top and a fat, rounded bottom,” but instead the reverse — shaped like a tiny parachute, its top “rounded because of air pressure from below.”

Barnett’s lyrical prose and journalistic sweep combine to great effect, resulting in a perfect mix of the classical and contemporary regarding everything rain. In a chapter about the arts, she speculates on how life in gloomy, rain-soaked cities shaped bands like the Smiths (Manchester) and Nirvana (Seattle), or writers such as Charles Dickens, Mary Shelley, James Joyce, and Seamus Heaney. “True, the sun and the wind inspire,” she notes. “But rain has an edge. Who, after all, dreams of dancing in dust? Or kissing in the bright sun?”

Firsthand accounts contribute to the book’s lively tone, with fieldtrips to a remote perfumery in India; the “cavernous library” at the Met, Great Britain’s national weather headquarters and archive; Kurt Cobain’s hometown of gloomy Aberdeen WA; and Miami, where “the blue-sky puff clouds of morning give way to the silver Rubens by midday.” Even Marietta, GA, merits a visit, to one of the largest U.S. developers of scents — a family-owned company that uses “between 50 and 75 different chemicals” to conjure just one smell: Rain.

Blanco River May 24 2015

Blanco River, Texas, May 24 2015

Barnett, who lives and teaches in Gainesville, has written two previous books: Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis, and Mirage: Florida and the Vanishing Water of the Eastern U.S. Though Rain doesn’t clobber readers with it, the way humans have altered the weather patterns and the prospect of global warming are never far from Barnett’s sights, like the sound of thunder a mile away. “Climate change frightens and divides us,” she acknowledges, rightly, “to such an extent that many people refuse to talk about it at all.” (Hello, Governor Scott!) “But everyone,” she adds, “loves to talk about rain.”

How true. As I read, I felt like a kid who didn’t notice the spinach puree Barnett had snuck into my brownies. While enjoying her delightful chapter about Congress’s faith in the wacko solutions of rainmaking hucksters, I also gobbled up Barnett’s warnings about cloud-seeding and other forms of geo-engineering: “When we change one part of the rain cycle, we change another one somewhere else.”

Cynthia Barnett

Cynthia Barnett

California, where Barnett moved in 1977, and Florida, her home state, are living testaments to rain’s “subjugation and ultimate sovereignty.” Both coasts, during “the era of federal flood control profoundly changed the human relationship to rain” by rerouting and straightening rivers, building massive dams and debris basins. This sort of “building against rain instead of with it,” says Barnett, has “had devastating consequences for the coasts.” But she offers hope, not despair, when she provides examples of “street-greening projects,” river restorations, and other retrofits that can begin to undo decades of environmental ignorance and damage.

The story ends in the rainiest place on earth: Cherrapunji, India, average precipitation 470 inches a year. Residents note drastic changes since 1998, the result of “rampant water diversions, mining and deforestation.”

During Barnett’s stay, it’s hot and sunny and mostly dry. Further north, extreme rains caused “flash floods and massive landslides,” and entire towns and villages were washed away “while Cherrapunji pined for rain.”


A version of this review appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 7 2015.

Almost Famous Women for blog“Maybe the world had been bad to its great and unusual women,” reflects a character in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s second collection of short stories. “Maybe there wasn’t a worthy place for the female hero to live out her golden years, to be celebrated as the men had been celebrated, to take from that celebration what she needed to survive.”

Now there is. With the keen insight and penetrating empathy she brought to her debut collection, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Bergman resurrects a fascinating assortment of characters who’ve been marked by fame, and explores the difficult choices that have shaped their lives.

The women we meet in the pages of Almost Famous Women have risked everything — approval, acceptance, emotional and physical well-being, friendships and family ties — to wander outside society’s usual boundaries.

Opening the book, “The Pretty, Grown-Together Children” reimagines the lives of conjoined twins, Violet and Daisy Hilton, former showgirls who once flaunted “floor-length raccoon coats, matching luggage, tortoiseshell combs and high-end lipstick,” only to end up bagging groceries at a local Sack and Save in South Carolina.

In “The Siege at Whale Cay,” set on an island owned by brassy Standard Oil heiress and boat-racing champ, M.B. “Joe” Carstairs, her current girlfriend — and former Weeki Wachee mermaid — vies for Joe’s favors with witchy diva Marlene Dietrich. Continue Reading »

Happy Holidays!

Jerry helps decorate the tree in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941)

Jerry helps decorate the tree in “The Night Before Christmas” (1941)











(Reblogged from Mothic Flights and Flutterings.)

My back pages

thoughts-31You know how they tell you everything stays on the internet forever? It’s true of that annoying People story from 1987 about the Ga. Satellites that makes me sound like a dork, and the recipe for mulligatawny soup I asked Rainbow Grocery to share about ten years ago. But sadly, it’s not true for most of the book reviews linked to 8 Hamilton Ave., that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has taken off their website. I might try to resurrect these if I can dig up the old copies on my computer, and transfer directly onto this site. For anyone interested in the archived lists, bear with me. Meanwhile, take a look at my recent reviews of a couple of books that are making this year’s Best Of lists all over the place: Ugly Girls, by Lindsay Hunter, and Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce. And sorry about the snow; I haven’t figured out how to turn it off yet.

Love Me BackOnce you get past the jittery, voyeuristic stranger-sex in the prologue to Love Me Back, the narrator’s plight is so touching that you think, in answer to the title’s request, Of course I will.

A naive teenager named Marie finds work as a waitress to help support herself after getting pregnant and marrying a boy she has known for only five days. A valedictorian who has already met with her Yale professors, 17-year-old Marie trades her dream of attending seminary for the anxieties of breastfeeding, child-rearing and her fear of doing it all wrong.

To quell those worries, Marie throws herself into mastering the art of the good server at a series of restaurants, beginning with the Olive Garden. She learns “how to sweep aggressively and efficiently… how to anticipate and consolidate, which is all waiting tables is.” She learns “how to use work to forget.”

But forgetting, as author Merritt Tierce makes plain in this ferocious debut novel, takes a lethal amount of effort, and what began as a poignant glimpse of a teen mother careens into an inescapable train wreck we can’t look away from for the next 200 pages. Continue Reading »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 65 other followers