Monday, July 17, 2023

Review: This Isn't Going to End Well by Daniel Wallace

People are a mystery. We can only know the pieces of them that they are willing to show or share. No matter how much they appear to be an open book, there is some hidden part, smaller or larger, that they hold secret. Mostly we don't give much thought to this very private piece of the people in our lives. Their public self is enough. But when you lose someone by suicide, someone you thought you knew, someone who was instrumental in forming your own adult self, someone you loved dearly, you might start to look harder to try and find that missing piece, the unshared and unsharable aspect of your loved one's persona. This was definitely true for Daniel Wallace, as he chronicles in his non-fiction look at his late brother-in-law, William Nealy, This Isn't Going to End Well.

When Wallace was twelve, he first met his future brother-in-law. There was an immediate case of hero worship for this fearless, adventurous, talented, and charismatic man. William represented everything cool in Wallace's world and the fact that he took time to get to know this awkward kid and to occasionally include him or teach him was an absolute gift. Wallace wanted to be like William when he grew up, never knowing the demons that William fought underneath that legendary exterior until it was far too late.

William was a deeply complex person suffering from deep trauma and suicidal ideation. He was increasingly obsessed with his best friend's unsolved murder. On the surface, he was a master at just about everything he turned his hand to, he was loving and tender, especially with Holly, Wallace's sister, who suffered from crippling arthritis and a multitude of other health problems, he was (and still is) a famed cartoonist, a storied and respected river runner, and a much beloved brother-in-law. But all of that could not keep him from taking his own life, an act that left Wallace confused, angry, and devastated, and ultimately searching for the truth of the man he thought he'd known.

The book is almost a series of vignettes from Wallace's own life, his memories of William, Holly, and his attempts to work through his own confused feelings about William's death. It is both Wallace's book and William's book and even occasionally Holly's book. It is musing and reflective when Wallace is focused on himself. Oddly enough, it is less sympathetic when it turns to William though. Wallace uses excerpts from William's private journals, which were supposed to be destroyed, to give the reader a look into William's mind. This private, made very public without consent, in fact, expressly against consent, makes for some very uncomfortable reading. Clearly Wallace is still angry about William's death and while he doesn't sugar coat this ugly emotion and all it inspired him to do, he hasn't seemed to work past it far enough to feel deep sorrow and understanding for the man who suffered so much emotionally in private. In a way, the anger feels like a betrayal of all that William gave to him over the years.

This is less a memoir/biography than a reflection on how hard it is, indeed, to realize that someone you adored was merely human like the rest of us and the sadness of discovering that the inner person isn't like the outer person, or at least the outer person isn't the whole of the person you thought you knew. William was a major influence on Daniel's life but one has to wonder after reading this, what William himself would have thought of his brother-in-law's book, whether he would have thought it a fair exposure or not. Laying bare what it did, in the manner that it did, was deeply uncomfortable to me as a reader.

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