Like most books about unhappy children in dysfunctional families, The End of the World as we Know It is difficult to put down. In this case, it’s not so much that you can’t wait to find out what happened next — it’s clear from pretty early on there’s not going to be any great payoff — but because you get so deeply absorbed in the details of everyday family life. Each chapter is set at a different time period, so the notion of cause and effect can be confusing, but perhaps that’s part of the point. The book opens with Goolrick as an adult, caring for his dying father (his mother, we learn, has died six years earlier). Adult memories like these are juxtaposed with scenes recalled from a child’s point of view, when Goolrick’s parents seemed impossibly beautiful and glamorous, despite the fact they were actually drunk and poor.
Goolrick’s sad story is told in a simple but vivid style full of short, single-clause sentences — an effective way of conveying the immediate details of a closely observed life. On the morning when Goolrick is first abused by his father, for example, after experiencing a vivid dream, he says: “I woke up and I was in the bed where I had started. There were grownups snoring softly in the room. The room smelled like liquor and night sweat. It was getting light out. The birds were beginning to sing.”
The End of the World as we Know It has received a lot of publicity; critics and reviewers have covered it in superlative praise, and the cover is laden with accolades from fellow memoir-writers. For example, Amanda Stern, author of The Long Haul, writes of Goolrick that “Through gorgeous prose, he gradually discloses layer upon layer of deplorable abuse, and as the coating underneath becomes exposed, so too does an exquisitely sensitive soul, whose self-awareness is so uniquely well articulated, it would shock me if the reader’s heart went unchanged.”
I can’t help finding such over-the-top statements off-putting. Such is the nature of the book business, I suppose; products have to be advertised. But while I enjoyed the book and found it engaging, I can’t say my “heart was changed” by it, whatever that means. Without wanting to seem too cynical, I wonder — isn’t it enough for someone to tell the story of their childhood in an engaging way? Must it also “move our hearts”? After all, Goolrick’s childhood was not so different from many others. His parents were drunk, repressive, and abusive — as many parents are. What is unique about the story, perhaps, is that the author waited so long to tell it — or to tell any story, for that matter. Goolrick, who worked as a senior vice president in an advertising corporation in New York for many years, is now in his 50s. Perhaps a more ambitious writer (or a career writer) would have written this memoir earlier, but that would have been a mistake. The book certainly benefits from the perspective of time and distance, except in the last chapter, where the normally restrained prose becomes overwrought and vindictive. Here, Goolrick explains, he is telling his story “for the fathers. The priests. The football coaches. The Boy Scout counselors. The lonely men in secret basements. Murderers.”
This last chapter raises some interesting questions — at least, it did for me. Why, for example, do some people seem to recover so easily from child abuse that they barely even remember it, whereas in cases like Goolrick’s, their lives are ruined from that moment on (in this case, the age of four years and two months)? Why can some of us smoothly separate ourselves from our families as soon as we realize how toxic they are, while some of us remain bound up in our childhood horrors long after our parents are in the grave?