Sometimes writers have to get a memoir out of their system before they can start on their great novel. Will Boast spent years trying to turn his life story into fiction, but eventually gave up and wrote an autobiography. In Epilogue, he describes how his mother died of brain cancer when he was in his first year of college; two years later, his younger brother Rory was killed in a car crash, then his father set about drinking himself to death. Later, he discovered that his father had had two sons from a secret previous marriage, so he tracked them down and made friends. Boast certainly has plenty of material to work with, but this book feels like it’s been written more for himself than for his readers.
The characters remain shadowy, sketched in with brief vignettes and half-remembered dialogue. Whenever his English relations appear, they make a lot of cups of tea and talk exclusively about gardening and the weather. Boast adored his mother but he never quite conjures her up — we see her smoking in a doorway, stamping books in the local library, arguing with their father or reading a letter from home, but when she dies there’s no real sense of what he has lost. He does better with his father and brother, whose characters both seem to contribute to their deaths. Rory is rebellious, taking drugs and staying out late with his friends every night, while their father is hardworking and stoical. After Rory’s death, he drinks whisky long into the night and wishes his other son would come home from college. He eventually dies of a massive perforated ulcer that he’d left untreated for years.
Epilogue has a leisurely approach to plot, which must have made it hard for the author to select episodes from his life. A lot seem to be included because Boast needs to get them off his chest. He is with his aunt Sarah when he meets his half-brother Arthur for the first time. ‘Was I being oversensitive, or was she being a little short with him?’, he wonders, and that’s the last we hear of Sarah.
Later, Arthur’s boyfriend Phillip gets upset after days of being left out of endless family conversations: ‘In that moment I felt my heart being strangled,’ Boast writes, and that’s the last we hear of Phillip. The book is festooned with quotes from people praising the courage of the writing, but it would have been a lot braver to leave out these guilt-assuaging devices.
Boast has a knack of snatching indifference from the jaws of sympathy. He gives the address at his father’s funeral: ‘Telling my father’s story, I’d somehow ended up telling my own as well, as if the eulogy were for both of us.’ He finds out that his father’s first wife is dying: ‘Here was one more unworkable coincidence: my mom had died of cancer. Now it was killing Arthur and Harry’s mother as well.’ In an unbelievably unfortunate turn of phrase, Boast reflects after his father’s death: ‘The story of my family had come to an end. It was just me left, some kind of tacked-on epilogue that went pointlessly on and on.’ He has a sad tale to tell and we could forgive him a degree of self-pity, but it’s directionless and all-pervading.
When he showed his first, fictional effort to a friend, she said there was too much tragedy in it for anyone to believe it. Boast, who doesn’t seem to have read any Thomas Hardy, accepts this, remarking that ‘life doesn’t care if the plot feels clumsy’. Perhaps he felt freer with the memoir form, but he forgot that the diarist and the novelist are under the same obligations.