A tragic set of circumstances lead a young man to discover a whole new life
Epilogue: a Memoir by Will Boast
(Granta £10.39; ebook, £9.73)
When he was in his late teens, Will Boast’s mother died of cancer. His younger brother Rory reacted by taking to drink and drugs, and was himself killed in a car accident a year later. “Broken by grief”, his father “set to the business of drinking himself to death”—a mission he accomplished when Will was 24.
But then, with apparently all of his family dead, Will discovered a shocking secret. He, Rory and their English parents had emigrated to Wisconsin when Will was seven —but it turned out his father had been married before, with two middle-aged sons in Britain whom he’d seemingly disowned.
Put like this, Epilogue might sound rather lurid. In fact, Boast manages to write (and write beautifully) with a combination of great honesty and restraint, noting all his contradictory feelings, noble or otherwise. At one point, he admits that it’s possible “to be proud of grief”. At another, he uses his story to impress a girl.
He’s also very good on being an English boy, as he insists he is, growing up in the American Midwest. (“By 13 I was a snob. I loathed everything American, fetishised everything English: the BBC, Thomas Hardy, Cumberland sausages, Twiglets, Jaffa Cakes…”) And yet, of course, when he goes to Britain to meet his brothers— and to establish a hesitant sense of kinship—he feels pretty American.
Will’s mother and Rory are certainly given their due. The book, though, remains dominated by his once “unbreakable” father: a man he regards with an ever-shifting mix of admiration, exasperation, love and, once the secret is revealed, suspicion:
"His stories about his schoolboy days were litanies of brutality. His English master at Bishop Wordsworth’s Church of England Grammar School for Boys was the author William Golding. Golding would later use his dreary tenure there as inspiration and research for Lord of the Flies, conducting social experiments on the boys, pitting them against each other in schoolyard battles. My father and his classmates—who had nicknames like “Knocker” Nokes and “Taff” Thomas—not so affectionately referred to Golding as “Scruff”, because of his scraggly beard. In the island-tight schoolyard hierarchy, my father didn’t fare badly. He was on the boxing team and fought bare-knuckle. By age 13, he was beating even the fifth-form boys; he knew how to take a blow. As for a nickname, his classmates called him “Beastie.”
Through his late teens, my father played rugby around Wiltshire, often taking the pitch with men twice his age, men who could only hope to compete by playing dirty. In a scrum, they’d reach out and grab your balls (“goolies”, my dad would say at this point, his eyes lit with mischief), leaving you howling.
Dirtiest of all was Doc Mitchell, who played for my dad’s club. If a player on the other team went down, however minor the injury, Doc Mitchell would do a quick examination, then send him off, saying, “Have that looked at straight away, lad.” Club teams struggled to field a full side, never mind substitutes. With an injured player, the opposition would have to play one man short.
Once, my dad was sent sprawling by a rough tackle. He went to the touchline, clutching his leg, gasping from the pain. Doc Mitchell huffed his way over and fingered a few bones as if testing fruit at the market. “Oh, you’re all right. Stop whinging and get back in.” Only after they’d won and my father was hobbling off did Doc say in his ear: “Get to hospital, Andrew. You’ve a broken shin.”
A broken shin, a broken foot, a broken ankle—the injury sometimes changed with the retelling. Yet I knew Dad wasn’t exaggerating. He’d played out that game with an excruciating injury and done so with pride.
The point of the story, I understood, was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain! Dad thought the story was hilarious, just another in an endless series of boyhood larks. He cracked up whenever he told it, and so did Rory and I. Even my mother had a thin smile.
But now I don’t laugh. I think of his refusal, throughout his life, to see any doctor, not our family GP, not a specialist for his rotten stomach, and certainly not a therapist or a psychologist for his grief-stricken heart. Too proud, too stubborn, too tough, too ashamed to be seen sidelined or entrust anyone else with his suffering."
Read more articles by James Walton here