What You Have Left

What You Have Left

3.6 13
by Will Allison

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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 asks for a little time to clear his head, but thirty years pass before Holly sees her father again. What You Have Left is about a father and daughter trying to


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 asks for a little time to clear his head, but thirty years pass before Holly sees her father again. What You Have Left is about a father and daughter trying to make their way back to one another across decades of longing, uncertainty, and ambivalence—all the while hoping to discover that what they have left is worth salvaging. Shot through with sly humor and a knowing sympathy for human weakness, What You Have Left is a stunning debut that explores the weight of history, the nature of loss, and the possibility of forgiveness.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Loss and redemption take center stage in Allison's beautifully written debut novel....Characters' tension-fraught relationships are well played, and Allison is adept at navigating a labyrinthine web of psychological underpinnings. The nonlinear narrative gives Allison a trove of angles, and he nails all of them."

Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Soulful, salt-of-the-earth tales of hurt and hope....Tender, smart, and efficiently told....Raw-boned, heartfelt prose."

Kirkus, starred review

"Mr. Allison's novel is plainspoken and eloquent in the way that So Long, See You Tomorrow is plainspoken and eloquent. It's worked up right out of the American grain and speaks to me, direct and true."

— Richard Ford

"The death of race car driver Maddy Greer reverberates throughout What You Have Left, creating a sharp and haunting picture of an absence. The prose is precise, the observations acute, and the emotional range huge. This is beautiful work."

— Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club

"Will Allison's What You Have Left is written with such vitality, such delicate intensity and clarity of feeling that I wanted it never to end. A story of fast cars and colliding emotions, it runs quicker than a dirt-track car on a Saturday night. The characters are heartbreaking, and absolutely real — good people spinning out of control."

— Mark Childress, author of One Mississippi

"The clarity of Will Allison's prose underscores the small, crucial moments when the fate of human beings is decided, on the subtle abacus of hope and accommodation, betrayal and love. He perfectly captures the texture of unstylized American lives."

— Janet Fitch, author of White Oleander and Paint it Black

"What You Have Left is a remarkable first novel that glows with feeling and crackles with surprising insight into the ways that families shape one another. I love the elegance of Will Allison's prose — he knows how to write a beautiful sentence but hasn't forgotten how to tell a story too — and his book shows such wonderful control over complex moods: it's funny yet thoughtful, heartfelt yet unsentimental, and altogether a rich and rewarding reading experience."

— Dan Chaon, author of You Remind Me of Me

"Though the beautifully drawn characters of What You Have Left do not understand how their lives draft, fender to bumper, upon each other, the reader can only sit back wondering whether clear driving's ahead, or a seemingly inevitable disaster. This is a masterpiece in writing, and in understanding Nature versus Nurture. We understand that Holly's her mother and father's child whether she wants to be or not. Brutally hilarious and mesmerically tragic, What You Have Left might be the perfect novel."

— George Singleton, author of Drowning in Gruel

"Allison's quiet prose gets at a mother's raw nerve, a father's desperate evasions, the daredevil rage of an abandoned daughter, and the anxiety of a husband curbing his own destructive impulses as he gauges the risks of love." — O, the Oprah Magazine

"Allison...has a gift for storytelling. He sets his first novel in South Carolina; his characters teeter between mistakes and redemption." — The Charlotte Observer

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

Product Details

Free Press
Publication date:
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5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)
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Read an Excerpt

I was sentenced to life on my grandfather’s dairy farm in the summer of 1976. The arrangement was supposed to be temporary, a month or so until my mother recovered from her water-skiing accident, but after one week, on the first day she was able to get out of her hospital bed and walk, a blood clot traveled up from her leg, blocked the vessels to her lungs, and killed her. My father had been the one driving the boat, the one who steered too close to the dock. Three days after the funeral, he walked out of the insurance agency where he worked and wasn’t heard from again.

Though my grandfather, Cal, spent months trying to track him down, it was no use, and that’s how, at the age of five, I came to be spending my nights in the bed my mother had slept in as a child. Cal made a gift to me of my mother’s arrowhead collection, which he’d helped her assemble when she was little. He also decided to repaint her bedroom for me and said I could pick the color. He was trying to be nice, but I wasn’t ready for nice. At Taylor Hardware, I chose Day-Glo orange, held the sample card up for my grandfather’s approval, and then proceeded to pick out three more hideous shades of orange—one for each wall—daring him to say no. Instead of stopping me, instead of telling me one color would do, he’d simply nodded. “Anything you want, sugar plum,” he said. Naturally, I threw a tantrum. What I wanted was my mom and dad, not stupid paint for a stupid room in a stupid old farmhouse. I’m sure everyone in the store thought I had it coming, but rather than drag me out to the parking lot for a spanking, as he’d surely have done with my mother, Cal just picked me up and held on as I kicked.

My grandfather’s relationship with my mother, his only child, was a difficult one, and the subject of her death always left him at a loss. Whenever I asked about her, Cal would either fall silent or try to deflect my questions with anodyne bits of wisdom, mostly quotations from the tattered Bartlett’s he kept by the toilet. His standby, the old chestnut that exasperated me most, was a line from Hubert Humphrey: “My friend, it’s not what they take away from you that counts; it’s what you do with what you have left.”

At the time, of course, I was too young to appreciate what my grandfather was doing with what he had left—raising yours truly—and in all my worry over what had been taken from me, I failed to consider how much had been taken from him. My grandmother, Josie, had passed away before I was born, and shortly after my mother’s death, my great-grandfather died as well. The Colonel had been living in the Alzheimer’s ward of a nursing home in Blythewood, a low brick building that smelled of Pine-Sol and pea soup. I hated visiting him, but Cal always brought me along, telling me that one day I’d be glad I’d gotten to know my great-grandfather.

There wasn’t much left to know. During our visits, the attendant would park the Colonel’s wheelchair by the window, where the sunlight lent his eyes a misleading sparkle. On the rare occasions he addressed me, he called me by my mother’s name, Maddy, but usually he’d just grab my wrist and shake it, moaning, oh oh oh. Looking back on those visits, I now see that if they were unpleasant for me, they were torture for Cal, who wasn’t just seeing his father; he was seeing his own future self. Over the years, he’d watched his grandfather, his uncle, and now the Colonel succumb to the same disease—smart, willful men reduced to drooling and diapers. He’d seen the ugliness of it, the anvil weight on his family, and he was determined not to go down the same road. Driving home from the Colonel’s funeral, he took a long swallow from his silver flask and swore he’d take matters into his own hands before it came to that.

I never forgot that vow, though when I was old enough to understand what it meant, I told myself it was just talk, that my grandfather would never intentionally leave me. But in the end, Cal was true to his word. When his mind started to go, he fought back with a handful of sleeping pills, leaving me the farm where I now live with my husband, Lyle, who was hired to renovate the farmhouse in the months before Cal’s death.

My grandfather first told me he was sick during the spring of my sophomore year at Carolina. He was starting to slip, was how he put it. “Maybe it’s something and maybe it’s not,” he said. “The doctors don’t know for sure yet.” It was early April, and I was at the farm for our weekly cocktails, the two of us sitting out front beneath the mossy live oaks, a pitcher of Cal’s peppery bloody marys on the wrought-iron table between us. I watched Lyle and his crew stacking steel beams alongside the house as Cal told me that over the past few months, he’d begun forgetting things—names, appointments, the day of the week. He figured it was probably old age, no reason to get all bent out of shape, but just to be safe, he’d gone to the VA for a checkup. They’d given him a physical and a mental-status evaluation. Now they wanted him back for more tests. I stared into my drink, thinking about how he’d forgotten my birthday that fall, how I’d been so busy with classes and pledge meetings that I blew it off, even though it was exactly the sort of lapse I’d always been on the lookout for. Cal patted my knee and told me to cheer up. “Like Yogi Berra said, it ain’t over till it’s over.” Then he stared into his drink, too. “Course, he also said the future ain’t what it used to be.”

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-yearold. 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.

When the sun started to dip behind the bluff, Cal left for his monthly poker game at the country club; as he drove down the lane, he flashed us the peace sign, something he’d picked up from Lyle. Once he was gone, I lit a smoke and emptied the last of the pitcher into my glass. “You ought to make sure he pays you before he blows his brains out,” I said. Lyle smiled, then quit smiling when he saw I was serious, then smiled again because he didn’t know what else to do.

“Come again?”

I sent him inside to mix another pitcher, and when he returned, I continued to get embarrassingly drunk and told him everything, all the while vaguely aware that I was trying to seduce him, never mind that he was twenty-four and I was only nineteen. When I got around to the part about Cal planning to “take matters into his own hands,” Lyle was doubtful. “Isn’t that just something people say? To give themselves a sense of control?”

“You don’t know my grandfather,” I said. I hoped Lyle was right, though. It had always terrified me to think Cal would end up like the Colonel, but even that would have been better than no Cal at all. Still, the few times he’d alluded to killing himself—usually in the fading twilight of a vodka-soaked cocktail hour, and usually in the context of what his father ought to have done—I’d simply nodded along, trying to maintain the sort of grown-up composure he admired. I understood, even as a child, that I was always being compared to my mother, contrary, contentious, confounding Maddy. “You,” he’d say, tousling my hair, “you I don’t have to worry about.”

But of course he worried anyway, and as I sat there with Lyle, listening to the crickets and watching the Spanish moss flutter in the breeze, I began to understand why Cal kept inviting him to join us: He was worried about what would happen to me after he was gone. He was worried about me being alone. By now I’d started to get weepy, and Lyle put an arm around me, telling me things would work out. The fireflies were just starting to appear as I took his hand and led him into the house, through the French doors of the parlor, past the pocked paneling of the workshop, and upstairs to the bedroom with faded Day-Glo walls and the curio cabinet lined with my mother’s arrowheads.

Copyright © 2007 by Will Allison. Reprinted by permission of Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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.