On the April day that gives Donald Antrim’s book its title, the novelist had to be coaxed off a fire escape. “I was there to die,” he writes in a vivid memoir whose existence — and subtitle, “A Story of Suicide and Survival” — prove that his goal was thankfully thwarted. Antrim, a MacArthur “genius” grant winner whose books include “Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World” and “The Hundred Brothers,” checked himself into a hospital in 2006 and found enough composure to write this bracing memoir about his experience.

One Friday in April” is a heart-rending and edifying portrait of the pain of mental illness. “The word ‘depression’ is inadequate,” he writes, citing William Styron, who made that insight in his 1990 memoir “Darkness Visible.” Antrim calls his condition “a disease of the body and the brain”; he describes his harrowing feeling of being simultaneously frantic and worn out: “The pain seemed to come from my skin and my muscles and my joints and my bones. But when I touched myself, I couldn’t find a source. I felt like I hurt everywhere, but also nowhere.”

Upon entering the hospital, Antrim’s life was circumscribed by encounters with therapists and a regime of heavy medications — “Trazodone, Ativan, Seroquel, nortriptyline, and chloral hydrate.” On top of the pain, Antrim experienced deep shame, desperate loneliness and a fear that he had lost everything. “One Friday in April” captures his agitated mind; it is seldom linear and sequential. It shunts back and forth in time amid a wide cast of characters. Although barely more than 130 pages long, the book illuminates far-flung branches of Antrim’s family tree. He sketches his maternal grandmother who subjected his mother to Munchausen syndrome by proxy and persuaded compliant doctors to perform multiple, unnecessary surgeries. He recalls Uncle Eldridge, a figure from his earlier memoir, “The Afterlife,” who before dying of alcohol poisoning pinned the child Donald to a bed.

“The Afterlife” explored Antrim’s complicated relationship with his family, his mother in particular. That book — and this one — were particularly intriguing to me, someone who has known the family for years. Antrim’s father, Harry, was my dissertation director at the University of Virginia and remained a friend for 40 years. Harry was married to Louanne, then he divorced her, remarried her and divorced her again. The two of them were heavy drinkers, but while alcohol deepened Harry’s detachment — I have an indelible image of him dressed in an ascot, mixing martinis — it exaggerated Louanne’s theatrical nature to the point where magnificence blurred into madness. Eccentric, then altogether addled, she designed flamboyant clothing that astonished people in the street and frightened her son. In “The Afterlife,” Antrim remarked: “I became my mother’s confidant. In doing so, I became her true husband, the man both like and unlike other men. And in becoming these things, I became sick.” As a sequel, “One Friday in April” shows just how sick Donald Antrim became and how his illness was prompted in part by guilt over what he wrote about his mother.

Sadly pills never completely worked, nor did talk therapy. When doctors suggested electroconvulsive treatment, Antrim recoiled, viewing this as the end of the line. But then he received a call from novelist David Foster Wallace who at the suggestion of a mutual unnamed friend recommended ECT. (In a sad irony, Wallace would die by suicide in 2008). Multiple treatments seemed to have stabilized Antrim. One hopes the effects are lasting. For Antrim’s life, like his work, is a high-wire search for perfection. And as poet Paul Valéry commented, “We cross the idea of perfection the way a hand, with impunity, crosses a flame; but you cannot live inside the flame.”

Michael Mewshaw is the author of 22 books. He is currently finishing a memoir about his friendship with Graham Greene.


A Story of Suicide and Survival

By Donald Antrim

W.W. Norton. 144 pp. $25