Breathless. That’s not a word I normally would associate with a memoir, but it’s the word that often came to mind as I was reading novelist David Payne’s new book, Barefoot to Avalon. Subtitled “A Brother’s Story,” the book begins with the death of Payne’s brother, George A., in a highway accident that Payne witnessed. The reader is breathless in the reading; Payne is breathless in the telling.
The subtitle is perfect, because the book is as much George A.’s story as it is Payne’s, and focuses on their roles, relationship, and failures as brothers.
In the opening chapter, where we learn of George A.’s death in November 2000, we also learn about his struggle with bipolar disorder, as well as Payne’s own alcoholism and disintegrating marriage. Flash forward six years, and we get a closer look at Payne’s problems, which have only grown worse: financial strains, mounting tensions with his wife and children, and his repeated attempts to end his dependence on booze. Significant, too, is the conflict between Payne and his mother over whether he should write George A.’s story, a project he was then contemplating. “It’s disrespectful to your dead brother’s memory,” she says when he asks what she thinks. But Payne persists, because obviously it’s his story, too. His brother died in Payne’s car, with Payne watching, their tense relationship belonged to both of them, and yet their mother feels it’s George A.’s alone. Payne proceeds without her blessing.
Which raises the specter of one of the stresses in Payne’s relationship with his brother—a rivalry for the affection of their parents. (Oddly, a third brother, much younger, doesn’t figure in this competitive calculus and is mostly absent from the memoir.) In retrospect, at least, Payne is all too aware of this jealousy. George A. is the recipient of a car. A valuable shotgun. Hunting trips. Support and refuge when he stumbles. Payne is also jealous of George A.’s early financial success as a stockbroker. And, although Payne is several years older, George A. is the first to marry, leaving Payne with the feeling that he’s falling further behind. (The title of the book is a reference to a seminal moment in the brothers’ competition when George A. first beats Payne in a footrace.)
The memoir then jumps back in time for a closer look at the brothers as boys and then young men, spending vacations at the family’s summer home on the North Carolina coast. We follow them through their elite prep schools, the break up their parents’ marriage, George A.’s first mental breakdown, awkward relationships with step-siblings when their mother remarries, college successes and failures, troubles with women, career missteps, until we return in the chronology to that fateful highway accident in which George A. is killed.
Payne, who once aspired to be a poet, has published five novels. He clearly knows what he’s doing as he develops the “characters” and reveals their stories, including his own, with drama and suspense. The prose is often lyrical, giving the reader a sense of how Payne views the world. And always the narrative unfolds in an urgent, breathless style that suggests how much Payne needs to tell this story. It’s a fascinating, memorable read.