The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life by Robert Goolrick | Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life

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

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by Robert Goolrick
     
 

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It was the 1950s, a time of calm, a time when all things were new and everything seemed possible. A few years before, a noble war had been won, and now life had returned to normal.

For one little boy, however, life had become anything but "normal."

To all appearances, he and his family lived an almost idyllic life. The father was a respected professor, the

Overview

It was the 1950s, a time of calm, a time when all things were new and everything seemed possible. A few years before, a noble war had been won, and now life had returned to normal.

For one little boy, however, life had become anything but "normal."

To all appearances, he and his family lived an almost idyllic life. The father was a respected professor, the mother a witty and elegant lady, someone everyone loved. They were parents to three bright, smiling children: two boys and a girl. They lived on a sunny street in a small college town nestled neatly in a leafy valley. They gave parties, hosted picnics, went to church—just like their neighbors. To all appearances, their life seemed ideal. But it was, in fact, all appearances.

Lineage, tradition, making the right impression—these were matters of great importance, especially to the mother. But behind the facade this family had created lurked secrets so dark, so painful for this one little boy, that his life would never be the same.

It is through the eyes of that boy—a grown man now, revisiting that time—that we see this seemingly serene world and watch as it slowly comes completely and irrevocably undone.

Beautifully written, often humorous, sometimes sweet, ultimately shocking, this is a son's story of looking back with both love and anger at the parents who gave him life and then robbed him of it, who created his world and then destroyed it.

As author Lee Smith, who knew this world and this family, observed, "Alcohol may be the real villain in this pain-permeated, exquisitely written memoir of childhood—but it is also filled with absolutely dead-on social commentary of this very particular time and place. A brave, haunting, riveting book."

Editorial Reviews

USA Today
"A gifted writer['s]...memorable account of his terribly flawed family. ...Searing...It stays with you."—USA Today
Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Clear, forceful, and even melodious writing...an exquisite memoir that everyone should read."
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
People Magazine
"In this brutally painful remembrance of hard drinking, attempted suicide, and childhood trauma, first-time author Goolrick constructs a well-written, nonlinear narrative of his life...Goolrick's memory of the details of his childhood is impressive, as is the deep sense of sorrow...the story evokes. A courageous and successful work."
People
The New York Times
"Goolrick adeptly uses a slow, teasing way of revealing himself to the reader...Anecdotes of captivating vitality....The End of the World As We Know It is barbed and canny, with a sharp eye for the infliction of pain."
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Goolrick begins his debut work with a moment he hopes will bring him closure-returning to his Southern home to bury his abusive father. Peeling away the family's carefully constructed facade like the layers of an onion, this brave memoir tells of a childhood marred by alcoholism and an adulthood mired in loneliness, substance abuse and self-mutilation. The son of an indolent college professor and an unfulfilled, Valium-placated housewife, Goolrick grows up in a 1950s home where lavish cocktail parties and false bourgeois airs are sacred, and disclosing the family's slightest imperfection is sinful. Goolrick is never forgiven for his own minor trespasses, despite showering his struggling, status-hungry parents with extravagant gifts (he even resorts to buying them the family home they could never afford to own). Eventually it is revealed that their unhealthy dynamic and Goolrick's attempted suicide stem largely from a single, life-altering incident: his rape by his drunken father at the age of four. In the end, Goolrick has written a moving, unflinchingly rendered story of how the past can haunt a life. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A devastating debut memoir about a Southern childhood. A simple summary of the storyline of this memoir might inspire an eye-roll: Do we really need another tale about someone growing up in a South of days-gone-by, surrounded by eccentric relatives and neighbors, with a little alcoholism and incest thrown in for good measure? But Goolrick takes that tired scenario and makes it magical. He recounts a Virginia childhood worthy of William Styron and Flannery O'Connor. The deformed weirdos, a staple of Southern grotesque, are here, including severely retarded aunt Dodo, who one day asked young Robert to kiss her passionately. Here, too, are cocktail parties that would have inspired Douglas Sirk: Goolrick describes the lavish fetes his parents threw, the lovely chiffon dresses his mother wore. But something was off-kilter, at even the grandest parties. The chiffon dresses always wound up with cigarette burns, and the hectic entertaining was artifice and pretense, a frantic effort to cover up alcoholism and other, more hideous, family secrets. The author interweaves scenes from his childhood with scenes from his adult life: his mother's attempt to get dry, his own breakdown and drinking problem, his mother's death. One of the most gripping and emotionally insightful passages is of his father's funeral, where Goolrick makes clear how hard it is to bury a man you haven't forgiven. The language is lush and poetic while never becoming purple. Goolrick is clearly a victim of his parents' brutal abuse, but he has broken out of the categories of "victim" and "survivor" to become a powerful truth-teller.
Entertainment Weekly
"[An] unnerving, elegantly crafted memoir. . . . Morbidly funny."—Entertainment Weekly
From the Publisher
"A moving, unflinchingly rendered story of how the past can haunt a life."
Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781565124813
Publisher:
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
03/23/2007
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
5.80(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Both Now and Forever

1

My father died because he drank too much. Six years before, my mother had died because she drank too much. I drank too much. The apple doesn't fall very far from the tree.

My father was cremated. My mother was cremated, too. When she died on Labor Day, six years before, my father was too weak with grief to go through with a burial service, so my mother's ashes sat on a shelf in the funeral home for months, until the next spring, when suddenly one day my father got her ashes and had the yard man bury her in the back yard, in a little garden just off the back terrace where we sit sometimes in the evenings watching the creek and feeling the cool breeze off the water.

My mother's grave went unmarked, and nobody knew quite where she was, and my aunt was frantic with worry that there had been no burial service, no proper Episcopal blessing. The following Christmas, we gave my father a cast-iron statue of a unicorn-my mother had always loved them -- and we put the statue approximately on the spot where she was buried. We put the statue on top of a marble pastry board from the kitchen.

My father was probably the only man in history to receive a funerary statue as a Christmas present. It came in a crate as big as a washing machine, and he opened it on Christmas morning, just like it was a new set of golf clubs or something.

It wasn't a funeral, not a real one, but at least her ashes weren't sitting with a bunch of strangers in the funeral home anymore. My mother never allowed us to use the word home, or drapes or shrubs, or Mom or gift or kids, she thought it was tacky, but I don't know what else to call a place where they keep people's ashes after they've been cremated. My sister and I decided to bury my father next to my mother, or where we thought my mother was, underneath the unicorn, and to have a burial service for both of them, so my mother's soul would finally be free to go to heaven, to cease her endless wandering limbo in the ecclesiastical ether, and this pleased my aunt a lot. It was almost legal, to bury your parents in the back yard.

The house my father lived in, which I owned, was a wreck. Six months before, I had been home for a visit with him, and I woke up in the night and heard something moving in the room. When I turned on the light, there were three enormous rats on the crappy rug, sniffing at my garden clothes that I had tossed in a corner to be washed. I threw a book at them, and they scurried into wherever they lived, but it kind of freaked me out, so I went downstairs to sleep on the sofa. At dawn, I woke up again, to find two rats fucking on the Persian rug -- we never said carpet, not even when it was wall-to-wall -- so I sat up and threw an ashtray at them, and then stayed awake, rigid with fury, until my father came down to breakfast.

"This can't go on," I said. "There are rats fucking on my mother's Persian rug and it can't go on another day."

He didn't even answer, just went on cooking his eggs and bacon as though I weren't even in the room. That was his reaction to anything unpleasant, to pretend it wasn't happening, so I called an exterminator, who came out that day. He took one sniff in the sitting room and said, "You have a serious infestation problem." That was exactly what he said. He was so serious, like a doctor telling you that you had a fatal disease. "This could take a year."

By the time my father died, on August 15, the rats were practically gone, at least they didn't run around in the daytime, although the house smelled a lot like dead rats, if you kept the doors closed.

When I got into the house, I called my sister, whom I love very much. "We're orphans now," I said. "Who's going to adopt a forty-three-year-old orphan?" Then I started to get ready for the funeral.

My father had a carport. Just saying carport gives me a vague feeling of nausea. He had bought it from Sears, and it was just big enough to get his Chevy Nova under cover. His Chevy Nova stank to high heaven because the previous summer, my father had put the garbage in the trunk to take to the Dumpster, and then he forgot and left it there for six weeks, until I came home and got into the car and gagged and looked in the trunk and took the six-week-old summer garbage to the Dumpster. I sold the car eight years later, and it never stopped stinking. But the carport really bugged me.

There it sat, corrugated tin on flimsy poles, in front of the two-hundred-year-old house that my grandmother had bought seventy years before. So the first thing I did was call the yard man, who was named Claudie, and ask him to come out and cut the grass, because I knew there would be a lot of people coming to the house in the following days and at least the yard would look decent. While he was there I asked him to take down the carport and throw it away. This was the day after my father's death and already the carport was going, and Claudie asked if he could have it and I said sure, so he carefully took it apart and loaded it into his truck, which anybody could see would never fit into the carport anyway, so I was puzzled, but I was just glad to have the thing gone.

He probably had other cars. Some people in Virginia like to leave used cars in their yards as though they were extra pieces of real estate. We cleaned the house, my sister, my aunt, and I, until late in the night. We cleaned at least the parts where people might go. There were plates of food still left on the kitchen counter and the kitchen floor for the dog to eat, mostly Styrofoam containers from places like Long John Silver's. My aunt kept singing this sort of little song over and over-"Greasy cobwebs," she would sing cheerily, as she attacked the ceiling with a broom, "Greasy cobwebs."

Much later, I learned that both she and my uncle despised my father, whom I had supposed to be universally liked, he had been so charming, at least until he became a total recluse who only went to town at eight-thirty in the morning to get the mail and go to the library for stacks of mystery novels and to buy his dinner at some fast-food place, some greasy something which would sit out all day until he heated it up at night and took three bites.

He must have been so lonely.

When we were done cleaning, the house didn't look great, but at least the sitting room and the dining room looked OK. The dining room had once been in another room, but my father had all the furniture removed and moved his bed in there so he didn't have to walk up the stairs drunk every night.

That was the other thing I did the day after my father died. I took apart the bed he slept in and gave it to my sister. It had been the bed she slept in as a child, a little twin bed, and my father had passed most of his hours on it, reading an endless number of mystery stories and watching TV and talking to his dog, Sam Weller, and drinking bourbon. My sister would go out and cut his toenails in that room. He bathed and went to the bathroom in the old pantry, where he had had a sink and toilet and tin shower installed, the only bathroom in the world that had been put together without any heating at all, so the pipes froze every winter and I suppose he had to go upstairs then, at least once in a while.

The day after my father died, my godfather's wife appeared with a ham. There was one slice taken out of the middle of it. "We just had this ham left over, and thought maybe you could use it," she said, as though it were an ordinary thing to go to all the trouble to cook a ham for eight hours in the middle of the summer, and as though one missing slice relegated it to the land of leftovers. It was an act of enormous kindness, done in perfect taste, and I appreciated it. People followed her, and they brought all kinds of food, with instructions pinned to the wax paper telling us how long to heat it up at 350. Grief, I suppose, makes you hungry, and since it was way too hot to cook anything, we ate whatever came to the door. A lot of it was really good.

Also, the day after my father died, this eighteen-year-old kid appeared out of nowhere and stood in the yard. He was from one of the houses up the hill, and he said that my father's dog, a black Labrador who was dumber than dirt, but sweet, had taken to wandering into his yard and he had started feeding him. Sam Weller wasn't thin, living, as he did, on a steady diet of Long John Silver's and Arby's and so on. The kid told me he was going off to Vanderbilt in the fall. "That's a good school," I said.

"Can I have your father's dog?" he asked. I thought about it a long time, wondering at the gall that had made him walk into a grief-stricken yard and start asking for dogs -- I mean this was a sweet, good-natured dog he was asking for -- but I knew that after I went back to New York I would visit the house only occasionally, and my sister already had two dogs and two children, and so I said yes. The kid didn't even know the dog's name, so I told him, and he stared at me blankly, and I figured there would be a lot for him to learn at Vanderbilt. I told him he could have the dog and he whistled and Sam came trotting over and the boy led him away, up through the woods, and that was the last time I ever saw that dog.

People came. My brother and his wife came from Atlanta, but they stayed in a motel, as they always did. Unexpected people came. Even two friends of mine from New York came, flying down in bad weather to stand up in a church and pay respects to a man they didn't know, just to be a comfort to me. It touched my heart.

Old friends of my father's came, and they would sit in the rat-free sitting room and have cocktails or iced tea and talk about my father. They told a lot of funny stories. There are more tears at the average Southern wedding than the average Southern funeral, and this was pretty much the case with my father. A lot of the stories had to do with times my father had gotten drunk and done funny things or said funny things, or when other people had gotten drunk and been hilarious, the life of the party. And there were the usual outpourings of melancholy. My father had been much loved.

The sitting room was very pretty, but there wasn't a single comfortable chair in the whole room, all the furniture was so cheap, bought on the quick without any care or thought, mismatched, everything, so they didn't stay long. Besides which, it was very hot, and we didn't have any air-conditioning.

My brother isn't very good at grief, he avoids scenes that trouble him, but he was very useful because he could sit for hours trading anecdotes with the people who came to visit. He's sort of the king of anecdotes, and he's very witty. Actually, he's kind of like my father, although he's never drunk.

The richest woman in the state of Virginia came, driving all the way up from the Eastern shore, bringing a bucket of tomatoes from the farm, as she called it, an immense Georgian mansion and something like three thousand acres on the Rappahannock.

After a Southern funeral, you always have people out to the house for drinks and lunch, if it's in the morning, and my father's was going to be at eleven, so we called a caterer, the only one in town, and she said she'd put together some chicken salad on rolls and sliced ham, which we had plenty of, and things like that, so people would have something to eat. It was hot as blazes.

People kept asking me if there was anything they could do, if there was some way they could help, and I kept saying no, partially because I was such a control freak and partially because I really couldn't think of anything. We had cleaned up the house and cleared out my father's room. We had put his few junky clothes in boxes to be thrown away, and we'd put the dining room table back in there, and the chairs, so it looked pretty much the way it always had before my father had retired from the world. My sister and I worked like dogs, which is what you do after somebody dies. Everything was done, so we just sat around, listening to anecdotes and eating ham and going over in the hot afternoons to swim in my sister's pool. The hours seemed languid and long. In times of grief, you're waiting for something to happen, but the thing you're waiting for has already taken place.

The morning of my father's funeral, I woke up at six o'clock and realized that there was one thing that hadn't been done. If my father was going to be buried next to my mother, there wasn't any hole to put him in. Nobody had thought to dig a hole.

Claudie would have done it. Claudie would do anything. But I had forgotten.

So I got out of bed and put on some ripped jeans and an old T-shirt and some Top-Siders and went down and got a shovel and jumped over the wall through the box bushes into the little plot where my mother was buried. (We never said boxwood bushes. It was tacky.) I picked up the unicorn statue -- it was very heavy and already warm from the heat -- and I started to dig in a spot I thought might be next to my mother. I hit the box my mother was buried in, so I shoveled the dirt back over and moved a foot to the right and started digging again. There had been a huge thunderstorm the day before, with torrential rains, and the dirt was wet and caked. It seemed to take a long time, the digging, and I was crying and sweating like a pig because I had drunk so much gin the night before. I was drinking straight out of the bottle by then, and I was pretty much bagged all the time.

I kept measuring the hole with the shovel handle to see if it was deep enough and, when I thought it was, I put the shovel away and went into the kitchen and ate some ham on a roll and had a shot of gin out of the bottle, just to take the edge off, and then I went upstairs and took a bath and shaved and put on my suit and my immaculately polished shoes and wandered around the house, smoking and taking the occasional shot, waiting for my sister and brother-in-law, who were going to take me to the funeral service in the church. My sister pretty much didn't trust me to drive anywhere at any time of the day, and she was right.

When they showed up, I told my brother-in-law I had a question and led him out to the grave I had dug. I asked him if he thought it was deep enough and he said no, so I got the shovel and jumped though the box bushes and started digging again. I dug down about another foot, and when my brother-in-law said that was enough, I put the shovel away and we went to the funeral. The air-conditioning in the car dried the sweat that soaked my shirt.

They always leave spaces for the family to park at funerals, so we parked right in front and went in and sat in the front row, along with my aunt and uncle and my other aunt and uncle, my father's sister and her husband. The funeral was a standard issue funeral service out of the 1928 prayer book, and then it was over and we got up and filed out, surprised at how many people there were, people from all over the state we hadn't seen since we were children. It seemed odd, filing out before everybody else, like a wedding without the bride, but people looked at us sympathetically, and we smiled back at most of them as though nothing were wrong. That's what you do.

Lunch is kind of a blur, but it happened, and people ate chicken salad and sliced tomatoes and ham, and cold melon, and the children grabbed a sandwich and then swam and waded in the creek to cool off. People laughed a lot. People told us what a wonderful man my father was and how much they would miss him. I can't tell you how much I hated my father, but I agreed with all of them anyway, because that's what you do, as well. Anyway, what good would it have done to say it now?

I had thought I would jump for joy when my father died. I had thought the weight of the world would be lifted from my shoulders. Instead, I was overwhelmed with grief, as was my sister, who had genuinely loved him and taken care of him in every way, no matter how creepy he was. By one o'clock, most of the people, the people who weren't as close to my father as some of the other people, had left, and the minister came, carrying with him the box with my father's ashes in it. He changed into his vestments in the room off the sitting room and then we were ready for the burial part. The ashes to ashes part.

Somehow the family squeezed into the little space inside the box bushes, and the other people stood on the terrace and looked down at us, the children standing on the wall in their bathing suits, rapt with curiosity -- the family group, the minister in his cassock and cotta and his stole, holding the gray box that looked basically like a piece of Tupperware.

The minister read the service, which is very short, and he named both my father and my mother, and I could feel my aunt's exhalation of relief and regret for her sister, and then he turned and handed the box to me. It was surprisingly heavy. I had expected it to be light as the ashes you clean out of the fireplace, light like artificial whipped cream, but it wasn't. I could see bits of bone through the milky plastic. This was my father in my hands. This was the final sum of my history with my father, and I felt the weight, not just of the box, but of the past, the weight of the anger, the weight of the disaster of our relationship. I had thought I had forgiven him.

I didn't know what I was supposed to do with the box, and then I realized I was supposed to put it into the hole I had dug that morning. I knelt down and put the box in the hole. I looked up and saw the stares on the faces of my father's friends, the children craning to get a better view, and I realized it wasn't over.

I began to shove the dirt in the hole with my hands. I felt like crying, but I knew that would just be a mess, and anyway, it was like planting something, and I had planted things a million times. My sister, bless her heart, knelt down beside me, and with her beautiful slender hands, she shoved dirt as well, watching it fall and cover this man she had loved. This man whose toenails she had clipped, whose hair she had cut. When it was finished and the last of the dirt was mounded over the box in which my father's ashes would lie forever, I took my sister's hand and we stood up. The people on the porch were still staring, and the minister waited patiently to say his blessing. So I turned and stamped down the dirt with my feet, and then I picked up the marble slab and the heavy statue and placed them over the freshly dug hole. Then the minister said the final blessing, the Lord bless us and keep us, the Lord make his face to shine upon us and be gracious unto us, the Lord lift up the light of his countenance and give us peace, both now and forever.

I always tell men who grieve for their fathers that it never turns out to be what you expected. I tell them that, no matter how much you think about it, no matter how deeply you've decided in advance that you know how you will feel when your father dies, the reality is far deeper and stranger than you can imagine.

I always tell people that if you want closure, as people say now, if you want some finality, you should get up at six o'clock in the morning and dig your father's grave. You should shove the dirt over him with your own hands and stamp it down with your English shoes.

But it's not true. It's not true, the thing I tell people about digging the grave and stamping down the dirt.

I had thought the demons would be laid to rest. I had thought the rage and the hatred that 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. It wasn't. Not for a day. Not for a goddamned hour.

What People are saying about this

Entertainment Weekly
In the tradition of Mary Karr's The Liars' Club and Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin', Robert Goolrick has crafted a classic memoir of childhood and the secrets hidden in a heart that can't forget. In the Goolrick home there was a law: Never talk about the family in the outside world, never reveal the slightest crack in the facade. In The End of the World as We Know It, the author takes us back to the seemingly idyllic world his father and mother created in their home in a small Southern college town, a world of gentle men and lovely ladies and cocktails and party dresses—a world being eroded by a family history of alcoholism. As Goolrick grew to be a man, his childhood held memories that would not let go, memories that held a secret that followed him wherever he went, defining and directing his days. Over time, the secret grew so big it threatened to rip the world apart. And then it did.

With devastating honesty and razor-sharp wit, he looks back with love, and with anger, at the parents who both created his world and destroyed it. As Lee Smith (author of On Agate Hill) observed, "Alcohol may be the real villain in this pain-permeated, exquisitely written memoir of a Virginia childhood—but it is also filled with absolutely dead-on social commentary of this very particular time and place. A brave, haunting, riveting book.""[An] unnerving, elegantly crafted memoir. . . . Morbidly funny."—Entertainment Weekly

From the Publisher
“Stunning—a dark, glimmering jewel of a book. There were moments when the language was so lush and clear and haunting that I was caught up short.”

—Alison Smith, author of Name All the Animals

Meet the Author

In addition to his most recent novel, The Fall of Princes, Robert Goolrick is the author of three other books: The End of the World as We Know It, a memoir; his first novel, A Reliable Wife, with sales of more than 1 million copies; and his second novel, Heading Out to Wonderful. He lives in Virginia.

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