June 2007

Erin Walter

nonfiction

The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick

At age 43, Robert Goolrick dug his father's grave, buried the ashes with his bare hands, and stamped down the soil with his own two feet. But it was not enough to bury the demons that haunted him his entire life, a life finally laid bare in the gripping new memoir The End of the World As We Know It. "I had thought the rage and hatred Southern men can feel for their fathers, a rage and hatred so old and terrible they can't be described, I had thought it would all be lifted from me and I would feel free," Goolrick writes. "It wasn't. Not for a day. Not for a goddamned hour."

In sharp, searing prose, Goolrick takes us back to the 1950s, when, "people had real parties," women talked but they didn't talk dirty, and, "nobody had even heard of tequila." More to the point, he takes us down South, where being buried in a cemetery with Civil War generals and having the richest lady in the state drive down for your funeral -- "that kind of thing matters." The first-time author depicts himself as hell-bent on getting to his own funeral, often nearly succumbing to alcohol, drugs, and self-mutilation. "I lost a decade of my life, just lost it, the way you might lose an umbrella on the bus."

At the core of Goolrick's book are family secrets -- and the manners and vanity his own family employs to conceal theirs. Life-changing horrors go unspoken, but Goolrick and his grown siblings still write thank-you notes to their parents within hours of a visit. Relatives consider gaining weight, "as startling and reprehensible as murder in the general population."

The family is on a downward spiral that lasts a lifetime, with Goolrick's parents slowly transforming from the life of a very civilized party to lonely, alcoholic invalids. The author describes his mother as vicious and adoring. "She told me that, when I was born, I was such a beautiful baby, she wouldn't pick me up for a year. I'm not sure into which category that falls."

Forgiveness -- or the lack thereof -- also dwells at the core of Goolrick's memoir. He has never forgiven himself for letting his mother die alone, nor does he forgive his family for the abuse of his childhood. Instead he repeatedly asks the question: how did they go on? "How most people carry on is a mystery... How they bear the weight of everyday life without screaming. How a person can go through a whole life and never once contemplate suicide, like people who have never once wanted to be a movie star."

In one of Goolrick's own suicide attempts, he envisions a third hand stretching the flesh of his arm as he cuts. The source of that hand is left unknown, a mystery to be revealed toward the tale's end. In this way, The End of the World As We Know It is its own revelation. It reminds readers why one man's unflinching truth still matters, still demands the printed page. The appearance of the third hand baffles at first, lingers a little, then fades away, forgotten just in time to return and break the reader's heart.

The events of The End of the World jump off the page with unforgettable vitality, despite their inherent morbidity. I was winded from reading, and as new revelations occurred, I felt forced to return to favorite passages. However painful, the desire to understand was too compelling. Perhaps that's how life has been for Goolrick -- scenes replayed over and over, just hoping to understand.

Of course, there may be the inclination to downplay the author's pain, accuse him of self-pity and conceit. After all, he is well educated, well traveled, and must have been well paid for his work in the New York advertising industry (a meal with Elizabeth Taylor is even relegated to a passing mention). But anyone who has experienced grief and shame -- and to varying degrees, we all shall -- should know such traumas can be never-ending. They transcend status and accomplishment.

Goolrick writes, "I would give anything, anything, to be the man to whom this has not happened." And he is straightforward about his motives for revealing his family secrets late in life: he is tired of lying to his friends, doesn't want people to believe he ruined his life over a mere bad mood, and, touchingly, holds out hope that his story can save at least one boy from a heartache that never goes away.

For the reader, the question remains as to whether Goolrick himself has been saved. He tells of living alone for the past 25 years, unable to enjoy intimacy despite youthful affairs with men and women, and he refers to an act of self-mutilation "two weeks ago," giving the book a significant sense of weight and urgency. Turning the pages of The End of the World As We Know It, you hope somewhere, somehow, someone is holding this man very tight, caring for him. But the saddest part is that you know from Goolrick's own words that it would be no comfort, as the tragedies of his life have left him repulsed by even the most innocent touch. You wonder: how does he go on? And you hope he will write more soon and share that secret.

The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick
Algonquin Books
ISBN: 1565124812
224 Pages