Words that kill demons

A Preparation for Death
Greg Baxter
Penguin Ireland; €17.54

A PREPARATION for Death is not a conventional memoir: it is more like an exorcism of the writer’s demons, past and present, and is at times exceedingly gruelling.

Within the first few pages the 35-year-old author has ‘puked for a little while’ in an alley behind his office after a drunken lunch and masturbated in the office toilet. Book clubs that like cosy, feelgood reads will already be crossing it off the list, which is a pity because it is an honest, deeply serious and often funny read.

Beneath the chaotic lifestyle lies a serious concern with the current state of literary writing, where originality is rejected in favour of what the author calls ‘bad writing’. Baxter moved to Dublin from Louisiana in 2003, ‘a resentful and jealous and desperate would-be writer’, disillusioned by his failure to find a publisher for his first novel, an ambitious-sounding work. After some months of unemployment he was taken on as a journalist on a weekly medical newspaper. A failed marriage left him with the mortgage on a €500,000 house on an estate in north Dublin, bought at the height of the boom.

The turning point, which led to this autobiography, came when he got a job teaching evening classes in creative writing. Preparing his classes sent him back to basics, keen to teach his students that just living a life is not sufficient preparation for being a writer; you need patience and humility and close reading of other writers — Montaigne, Augustine, Seneca, for starters. Above all, you need honesty. Teaching led him back to his own core, which had been distorted by his experiences of the American academic approach to creative writing. One searing essay describes a writers’ conference in Tennessee that he attended aged 25 as a precious, self-regarding world, where mediocrity rules.

He claims that the memoir was written in the panic of the experiences it describes. But the 11 personal essays are finely crafted and include childhood memories, college experiences, and warm portraits of family and friends from pre-Dublin days.

However, Baxter’s self-absorption can be irritating. His Austrian grandmother, Maria, for example, who is in a home in Texas suffering from dementia, interests him as ‘a symbol of my lost and unrecoverable self’, at which point most readers would like to shake him and tell him to get over it. But he does it himself by continuing to write about her.

Baxter’s father was from Maria’s first marriage before the Second World War. After the Russian invasion of Vienna, she was raped by soldiers every day, several times a day, but at least they did not kill her two sons. Eventually she fled the city, running down a road with a child in each arm. Baxter’s reconnection with his Austrian family, particularly his gay cousin, Walter, is one of the most absorbing parts of the book.

Maria’s second marriage to an American soldier took her to Texas, and Baxter revisits his divorced parents at Christmas. His father’s idea of a Christmas treat is a jaunt to the seedier parts of Las Vegas, while his mother, a formidable woman, deadly with a gun, lives in a trailer in rural wasteland.

Baxter explains that he does not write to make up stories or capture the spirit of an age: ‘I write in order to annihilate the mystery and magnitude of places in my memory, to exorcise their possession of me.’ Behind the sex and booze-fuelled Dublin life, there is a seriously good writer about place, be it gay Vienna, Howth Head on a sunny day or a backyard in suburban Texas.


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