Maybe I have this perverted need to read about other people's misery. I'm thinking that's the only reason why I would recommend reading Will Allison's What You Have Left (Free Press; June 5, 2007).
This is not an upbeat story and yet it feels very breezy. It's the kind of dark study of human nature that always pulls me in close.
Using various points of view, it's the story of Holly Greer, her father Wylie and her husband Lyle. Tragically, Wylie's wife, a NASCAR hobby driver, is killed during a water skiing accident. A bereft and drifting Wylie leaves 5-year-old Holly with his father-in-law Cal and promises that he will return soon.
He doesn't and Holly grows up on Cal's farm outside of Columbia, S.C., without her mother or father.
The story quickly shifts from Holly's early loss to her grandfather's Alzheimer's diagnosis and his decision, after watching his own father deteriorate, to take his life when the disease starts to progress.
Holly leaves college to be with Cal, who decides to spend what time he has left renovating the old farmhouse for Holly. He hires Lyle to do the work and forms a quick friendship with the contractor. In a little bit of matchmaking by Cal, Holly and Lyle fall in love.
But just when Holly thinks she's talked Cal out of taking his own life, he swallows a bunch of pills. She is left bereft and alone again and strikes out on a path of near self-destruction as she tries to track down her long-lost father. She gets very close, but Lyle and Wylie see to it that the long-awaited reunion doesn't happen—yet.
While I've not experienced loss to Holly's depths, I do recognize my own loner streak in her. And maybe that's why I turned page after page of her story.
My mother's accident happened on the day after the Fourth of July. The night before, she and my father had hosted their annual cookout, a big bash that involved a bonfire, several coolers of Schlitz, roman candles, and loud music from the eight-track player in my father's Firebird, which he parked near the lake's edge. While the grown-ups drank and danced the shag, I wandered along the moonlit bank until I found myself staring up at a neighbor's tree house. On a sagging platform that jutted out over the water, I sat watching the party, indistinct figures moving in the firelight. It had been maybe ten minutes when my mother noticed I was missing. After she checked the house, she stood at the end of the dock and called my name. There was real fear in her voice, and it sent a shiver through me. I climbed down and ran to her as fast as I could, calling out all the way, I'm coming, I'm coming.
Holly's fears of abandonment cause her to drink too much, smoke too much, drive recklessly, gamble uncontrollably, flee from the one who loves her most and all the while you can't help but feel that she's justified in some of the behavior.
The story drifts off about two-thirds into the book when it details the misery of an ordinary marriage—lack of sexual intimacy, one person working too hard, the other not as much, a mother giving her children her all while neglecting her husband, a husband who can't seem to articulate his needs beyond the sexual, a desperate night in which he comes close to sleeping with a prostitute and a pathetic attempt at two people trying to quit smoking.
It would all be so depressing were it not so ordinary.
While Holly claims to have given up on finding her father, Lyle persists and locates him via the magic of Google racing at a track in Indianapolis. Holly is moved to send him a letter thanking him for the pithy amount of financial support he had sent over the years. She writes to request back payment of child support to the tune of $28,800, which would be placed in a college savings fund for her daughter, Claire.
Wylie is thrilled to hear from her after so many years and invites her and Claire to visit.
That night, against my better judgment, I told Claire to pack a suitcase, we were going to Indianapolis.
Lyle frowned. "Don't take the bait."
"It's not bait," I said. "It's a bluff. And I'm calling it."
Only it's not a bluff or bait. Her father has a disease, brought on by a lifetime of excessive drinking and a wicked seizure, that has impaired his short-term memory. He records everything with a video camera so he doesn't forget. And he doesn't want to forget meeting his daughter and granddaughter for the first time.
The meeting is bittersweet and you can't help feeling as if Wylie is trying to make up for Holly's lost childhood by giving so much love and attention to Claire.
The title's inspiration comes early in the book when Cal recites one of his favorite Hubert Humphrey lines to Holly's eternal exasperation: "My friend, it's not what they take away from you that counts; it's what you do with what you have left."
What they have left is so little, but the story leaves you with the sense that maybe little is all they need to build something bigger—and hopefully better.
Author Will Allison will be reading from "What You Have Left" from 3-5 p.m. on Monday, June 25th at Nighttown in Cleveland Heights. His visit is sponsored by Appletree Books.
Allison has Cleveland roots, having moved here when he was a sophomore in high school. One of his early acknowledgments is to writer Mary Grimm, who is also an English professor at Case.