An important author’s struggles can help his readers

You can’t go home again.

This is what Thomas Wolfe learned after his thinly disguised autobiographical novel cast some of his family and neighbors in Asheville in unflattering roles.

It is always dangerous for a successful writer to base fictional characters on real family or neighbors. Like most of us, these people cannot be expected to appreciate unflattering portrayals or the publication of their carefully guarded secrets.

Even more risky is what Henderson native David Payne has done in his new memoir, “Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother’s Story.” Payne, who now lives in Hillsborough, has written five highly praised novels, including “Confessions of a Taoist on Wall Street” and “Back to Wando Passo.”

Payne’s younger brother, George A., died in an automobile accident. That tragedy and Payne’s feeling that he was responsible pushed him to write about his brother’s bipolar condition and their strained relationship. The resulting “Barefoot to Avalon” became a memoir of Payne’s family and with it a poignant chronicle of mental illness, infidelity, failed marriages, suicide, abuse, addiction, and alcoholism, one that must have been painful to write and can also be painful for the brave reader who follows Payne’s struggle to understand his family and himself.

For such a brave reader, there are great rewards. The New York Times reviewer, Carmela Ciuraru, writes, “This is a brave book with beautiful sentences on every page. Mr. Payne writes with the intensity and urgency of a man trying to save his own life.”

The story opens in November 2000 in rural Vermont on a farm Payne bought with proceeds from his successful books. With George A.’s help, he has emptied the contents of his house and packed them into two cars and a trailer in order to transport them back to North Carolina, where Payne’s wife and their two young children have already moved.

George A. is named for their grandfather, George A. Rose, a successful Henderson businessman, whom both brothers adore. They called him “Pa.”

Growing up, both brothers were athletic and good-looking. The natural competition with each other, though sometimes vigorous, was healthy. But when George was in prep school, he began to experience bipolar-I disorder episodes. He recovered and became a successful stockbroker with an ideal family. But the episodes returned and destroyed his career and his marriage. Out of work and living with their mother, George A. welcomed the chance to help his brother move.

Heading back to North Carolina, George A. lost control of his car and trailer on the mountain roads of Virginia. The resulting crash took his life.

David Payne covered himself with guilt. Back in North Carolina his writing career stumbled. His marriage began to fall apart. He found himself verbally abusing his children the way his father had treated his children. He was quickly becoming addicted to the drug of his choice, vodka.

To address his personal chaos, Payne got positive help from regular group therapy and by writing this book. And, he says, from stopping drinking “stone cold” nine years ago.

Good for him, you say, and then ask, why should I want to read about his personal experiences?

There are several reasons:

1. It is good reading, a compelling personal narrative by a gifted writer.

2. Payne’s family’s struggles can help us see our own family’s challenges from a new perspective.

3. Most of us have family or friends who have been touched by mental illness or addiction to drugs or alcohol. Reading about how others have been impacted can help.

4. The chance to get to know intimately an accomplished, important author is always for me a valued gift.

Or you can just take my word for it.

D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.
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