What You Have Left: A Novel

What You Have Left: A Novel

3.6 13
by Will Allison

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What You Have Left is an unforgettable story of love, loss, and, most of all, longing.

In 1976, on the day of his wife's funeral, Wylie Greer drops off his five-year-old daughter, Holly, at his father-in-law's dairy farm on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina. Wylie tells her he just needs a little time to clear his head, but thirty years pass


What You Have Left is an unforgettable story of love, loss, and, most of all, longing.

In 1976, on the day of his wife's funeral, Wylie Greer drops off his five-year-old daughter, Holly, at his father-in-law's dairy farm on the outskirts of Columbia, South Carolina. Wylie tells her he just needs a little time to clear his head, but thirty years pass before Holly sees her father again -- "time I spent wondering what I'd done to make him leave," she says, "and what I could do to make him come back."

What You Have Left is about a father and daughter trying to make their way back to one another across decades of uncertainty and ambivalence -- all the while hoping to discover that what they have left is worth salvaging. It's also the story of a grandfather bent on suicide, a pioneering female NASCAR driver, a heartbroken amnesiac, a video poker junkie, and assorted other liars, cheaters, and lovers who, despite their best intentions, never quite live up to their own expectations.

Are we doomed to repeat our parents' mistakes? Can lies save love instead of destroying it? Is letting go the same as giving up? Shot through with sly humor and a knowing sympathy for human weakness, What You Have Left takes up these and other questions as it examines the weight of history, the nature of loss, and the possibility of forgiveness. Making use of bold shifts in viewpoint and time, Allison proves a brilliant observer of the emotional legacies handed down from parent to child and the ways loss defines us. This stunning debut brims with an affection for humanity exactly as it is -- in all its ignorance and awareness, its swagger and humility, its despair and hope.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Look closely at the jacket of Allison's first novel. I'd bet you'll have the same reaction we did. "Who in their right mind would throw a child up in the air like that?!" Well, indulge yourself in a few dozen pages of What You Have Left, and you'll understand exactly "who" would indulge in such destructive behavior: his characters.

Allison has crafted a novel of southern discomfort, filled with dirt tracks and fast cars and generations doomed to repeat the mistakes of their forebears. Told from the alternating perspectives of Wylie, his daughter, Holly, and her husband, Lyle, it offers up the heartbreakingly humorous revelation that the truth of any matter depends largely upon who's doin' the tellin'.

Is the truth borne by Holly, the wounded daughter of a daredevil, dirt track–driving mother, whose early death sends her into a tailspin? Or by Wylie, the grief-stricken widower who first abandons his daughter, then longs to reconnect with his remaining family? And what of Lyle, who must continue to win the trust of a woman who learned early on that men don't stick around?

In the end, "what you have left" is simple endurance -- summoning the courage to get back behind the wheel after each collision, to keep winding down the dirt track of life -- because sometimes grace reveals itself in a crash of contradictions. (Fall 2007 Selection)
Lily King
In spare, transparent prose, Allison takes us through nearly four decades in the lives of a South Carolina family crippled by the past and unarmed for the future…The strength of What You Have Left lies in the relationships among its characters…Allison captures the truth and irony of being part of a family, no matter how broken it is.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Loss and redemption take center stage in story writer Allison's beautifully written debut novel. When five-year-old Holly's mother dies suddenly in the summer of 1976, Holly's father, Wylie, leaves her in the care of her grandfather, Cal, and disappears. Holly's coming-of-age on her grandfather's South Carolina dairy farm is a turbulent one, producing a volatile woman with drinking and gambling problems. She does manage, however, to land a good husband in Cal's contractor, Lyle, and the two have a daughter. Meanwhile, Wylie drinks himself close to death and works odd jobs, while Cal endures the deaths of his wife and daughter with stoic dignity. But an Alzheimer's diagnosis proves too much to bear, leaving Cal to put his affairs in order before making an early, quiet exit. It's more than 15 years later before Holly and Wylie reunite, providing the deeply felt emotional core of this earnest novel. Characters' tension-fraught relationships are well played, and Allison is adept at navigating a labyrinthine web of psychological underpinnings. Though the structure has its stymied moments (chapters are chronologically jumbled and are told in various voices, narrative styles and tenses), the nonlinear narrative gives Allison a trove of angles, and he nails all of them. (June)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Written in the form of a memoir, short story writer Allison's debut novel starts out strong: "I was sentenced to life on my grandfather's dairy farm in the summer of 1976," says narrator Holly Greer. Unable to cope with his wife's accidental death, her father left Holly, then just five, in the care of his father-in-law and drank his way through a series of dead-end jobs in no-name towns. Holly grew up with her mother's stubborn nature, her father's alcoholic tendencies, and a hole in her heart the size of South Carolina. She's frustrated no end by her grandfather's favorite saying-"it's not what they take away from you that counts; it's what you do with what you have left"-and her life is a slow struggle to come to terms with her intense feelings of longing and loss. Allison's writing is personal and direct, his characters are interesting but not quirky, and Southern racing lore adds color (Holly's mom was a stockcar racer). The troubled but ultimately loving relationship between Holly and Lyle, her solid, much-abused husband, is reminiscent of an Anne Lamott novel. For most public libraries.
—Christine Perkins

Kirkus Reviews
Soulful, salt-of-the-earth tales of hurt and hope in redneck-proud South Carolina. Like her NASCAR pioneer mother, Maddy, Holly is a hell-bent driver. She makes hardworking, hunky handyman Lyle mad with love, knocks back whiskey and searches for her father, Wylie, who deserted her as a kid right as Maddy perished from a blood-clot after a water-skiing accident. In shaky hands, this melodrama could border on Harry Crews's po'-folk shtick, but debut novelist Allison keeps things steady. Alzheimer's-ridden like his uncle and father before him, Cal, Holly's grandfather, downs 20 sleeping pills in 1991, leaving Holly bereft. Half this story, then, is Holly's and Lyle's romance-their love tested by such mishaps as Lyle's defiant burning of the Confederate flag atop the statehouse building in Charleston, and Holly's blowing of the family savings on video-poker gambling. The other half flashes back to Maddy and Wylie-their alliance against the good ol' boys jealous of Maddy's race-winning '62 Fairlane, their surviving of such outsized, small-town tragedy as the killing of his infant daughter by their next-door neighbor. In time, the storylines intersect, as Holly learns how to deal with ghosts of traumas past. From its Raymond Carver-esque title to its cast of big-hearted misfits, Allison's picaresque isn't terribly original. But it's tender, smart and efficiently told. By the end, thin as a "martini toothpick," his own mind given over to the dementia of Korsakoff's syndrome, Wylie reunites with his daughter, and the frost inside her starts to melt: "Suddenly I'm five years old again, clinging to his neck as he trundles me away from the hole in the ground where they've just put mymother."Raw-boned, heartfelt prose. Agent: Julie Barer/Barer Literary

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Read an Excerpt

The pecky-cypress paneling in the master bedroom of our house is pitted and scarred, the handiwork of a thousand woodpeckers, or at least that's what I imagined as a five-year-old. When I'd asked Cal about his funny-looking walls, though, he told me the pockmarks weren't the result of woodpeckers or worms or beetles, as many people believed, but rather a rare and little-understood fungus. "What makes pecky hard to find," he said, "is that you can't tell if a cypress is infected until you chop down the tree and cut it open."

When he'd purchased the farm, in 1939, the house wasn't a house, it was a grain barn. He divided the building into rooms and framed doors and windows using wood from an old sharecropper's cabin. After that first drafty winter, Josie shivering next to him in bed, he decided to insulate and panel their bedroom walls. He originally thought he'd get the wood from the Colonel's sawmill, but this was the Depression: Cal couldn't afford to buy lumber, and the Colonel couldn't afford to give it away, not even to his own son. The best he could do was let Cal help himself to the scrap pile, which was where he found, underneath an old tarp, a load of pecky cypress, enough to panel the bedroom and his workshop. In later years, people would develop a taste for pecky and an appreciation for its scarcity, but in those days, it was considered junk wood. Josie didn't care; she said it had low-country charm. Mainly, though, she was pleased that Cal went to all that trouble for her even as he worked twelve-hour days trying to establish their dairy farm. Her gratitude was not lost on him, and for the rest of her life, whenever he wanted to please her, he embarked on some new project to make the house more comfortable. Just before my mother was born, he added on a whole second story, and in later years he expanded the dining room and added a built-in china cabinet, then converted the front porch into a sitting parlor with French doors. In 1969, he was halfway done painting the house a minty shade of green that Josie picked out when doctors discovered the tumor in her breast.

After Josie's death, my grandfather let the house fall into disrepair, but during the fall of my sophomore year, when he first began having trouble with his memory, he sold off several parcels of land and started using the money to fix the place up. Though I didn't know it at the time, he did this for me, for when I inherited the farm.

At seventy-two, he was no longer able to do the work himself, so he hired Lyle on the recommendation of an old army buddy. In those days, Lyle was more handyman than general contractor, but he worked cheap, and my grandfather liked his manners, the fact that his family was well off, the fact that he'd been smart enough for grad school but then turned his back on all that academic baloney. Inside a month, Cal was inviting him to join us for happy hour. By then I already had my eye on Lyle — a shirtless guy tuck-pointing a chimney apparently being one of my weaknesses — but he seemed more interested in Cal's company than mine, so I played it close to the chest.

That all changed on the afternoon my grandfather told me he was sick. He'd just finished filling me in on his visit to the VA when Lyle and the two guys who worked for him came crawling out from under the house, brushing soil from their jeans. That week they were trying to fix the sloping floor in the living room. The joists beneath the oak floorboards were supported by heavy girders cut from the heartwood of long-leaf pines, and their plan was to reinforce these girders with steel beams, jack them up, and then build concrete pillars to stabilize the floor. After his crew knocked off for the day, Lyle joined us and began to report on their progress, and soon talk turned to the next project, a new roof. My grandfather didn't mention his health again, but I could think of nothing else, and as he and Lyle droned on about shingles and soffits, I stared out at the fields that once fed Cal's registered Guernseys and quietly plowed my way through two more drinks.

Copyright © 2007 by Will Allison

Meet the Author

Will Allison’s debut novel, What You Have Left, was selected for Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers, Borders Original Voices, and Book Sense Picks, and was named one of 2007’s notable books by the San Francisco Chronicle. His short stories have appeared in magazines such as Zoetrope: All-Story, Glimmer Train, and One Story and have received special mention in the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories anthologies. He is the former executive editor of Story. Born in Columbia, South Carolina, he now lives with his wife and daughter in New Jersey. Learn more about Will Allison at www.willallison.com.

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What You Have Left 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
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this was a great read! The characters are great. The ending was suprising. A must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Allison's book is filled with real people who can't help but break their lives apart along with those they love the most, then struggle to pull all the pieces back together again. Just like we all do. Clean, clear and disarmingly direct, What You Have Left is at turns funny and sad yet somehow hopeful -- and always charming.