Now in his mid-30s, Will Boast has not had an easy life. When he was a boy, his parents uprooted him from his native England and moved to Wisconsin, where his father had found work as a “project manager at an international plastics company.” His beloved younger brother, Rory, was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 17. Not long after Boast finished high school, his mother died after a terrible struggle against “a tumor in her brain the size of a jawbreaker,” caused by glioblastoma. His father died a few years later, basically having drunk himself to death. Then, to top it all, Boast learned soon thereafter that his father had been married before, many years ago, a marriage that had produced two sons.
“For years I tried to write this story — Mom, Rory, Dad, discovering my half brothers — as fiction,” Boast says. “I finally showed the manuscript to a writer friend. If you put all that in, she said, no one will believe it.” That calls for a couple of comments. Having spent too much time in one university writing program after another, and too much time with the teachers and students who populate these programs, Boast had fallen victim to the prevailing but untenable proposition that everything one experiences in life needs to be translated into fiction. The second point is that his fellow student gave him very bad advice. Probably he never should have written that novel (or this memoir, either), but if fiction is well enough done, readers are willing to believe anything that happens in it. How else to explain, for example, the enduring popularity of “The Count of Monte Cristo”?
In any event Boast went ahead and wrote “Epilogue,” doubtless in obedience to the writing-school maxim “Write what you know.” My advance copy came festooned with garlands of blurbs from people of whom I in my ignorance have never heard, with the exception of Ann Beattie, who contributes what may well be the most vapid and bromidic of blurbs in the whole history of that fine art: “He can really write,” which sounds more like an inscription on a tombstone than heartfelt praise. It also, alas, really isn’t true. There are all too many passages in “Epilogue” in which Boast can be seen straining with all his might to produce Fine Writing, but invariably he falls short.
Reading “Epilogue” is akin to being locked up in a small, airless, overheated room with a garrulous bore who simply drones on and on and on, talking of nothing except himself but making no evident effort to turn personal experience into something vaguely resembling art, not to mention something interesting to anyone beyond himself. The book has no apparent shape, no narrative movement, not much humor and a great deal of what the Brits call “whingeing,” loosely translated into American as “complaining too damn much.” What it also has, in profusion, is the first-person singular. Here, chosen entirely at random, is a typical passage:
“It kept gnawing at me: I’d done the wrong thing. Aunty Sarah and Nanny would let me make my own decisions, but I could feel that they silently disapproved of me meeting Arthur; they hoped this would be the first and last I’d see of him. What was worse — I’d betrayed my dad: He’d never wanted me to know my half brothers. Not only had I met Arthur, I’d blithely discussed the family with him. Dad would’ve been mortified if he knew what was happening. But I hadn’t meant for it to happen. I’d just been too curious, and when Arthur said he wanted to meet me, I’d been too polite to say no.”
That’s nine first-person-singular nominatives in one short paragraph, plus five first-person objectives and three first-person possessives. Obviously the first person has its proper place in memoir and autobiography, but skillful writers use it with restraint, understanding that self-exploration can easily turn into ego trip if not carefully watched. It may seem odd to say that 280 pages of whingeing add up to an ego trip, but complaining can be every bit as self-centered as bragging. Boast probably would argue that the moment of reconciliation with his British half-brothers on which the book ends is not exactly whingeing, but (a) it’s so predictable that one can see it coming 200 pages away and (b) the feeling it induces in the reader is not sympathy or pleasure but relief that the thing finally is over.
Were I (first-person-singular nominative) permitted to rewrite the dictionary, boasting would lose its traditional meaning and become “Boasting” with a capital B, a synonym for “whingeing.” Here is an all-too-pungent example: Boast has been talking with Arthur, the elder of his British half-brothers — by the way, an exceptionally nice man who exhibits great concern and affection for him — when the author suddenly screeches to a halt: “Because now I was betraying the central fact of my life, the thing I was laboring hardest to conceal: I was in utter despair. There were days, many of them, when I didn’t want to be around, period.” If that sounds to you like a faux suicide note, well, it sounds like one to me (first-person-singular objective) as well. It also sounds like self-pity to the nth degree, and it’s no more attractive on paper than it is in person.
Boiled down to its essence, “Epilogue” is simply a writing-school book, filled with all the self-absorption those places encourage and the tunnel vision it produces. We really do not need yet another memoir by a person too young to have undergone any genuinely interesting and instructive experiences — or, having had such experiences, too young to know what to make of them — and too self-involved to have any genuine empathy for those whose paths he crosses, but here we have just such a book. Thanks a lot, but no thanks.
By Will Boast
Liveright. 281 pp. $25.95