A Brother-in-Law Explores a Family Tragedy

THIS ISN’T GOING TO END WELL: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew,by Daniel Wallace. Illustrations by William Nealy.

Daniel Wallace’s new book, “This Isn’t Going to End Well,” is a eulogy, a cautionary tale, a love letter and a sob of anger.

It revolves around the suicide of a man Wallace loved and held in awe, yet it scrupulously avoids the crevasse of guilt that bedevils — and stalls — many similar stories. William Nealy was a mountain climber, a river rat and a self-described “fun hog,” addicted to excessive physical risk. “He lived for desperate moments, for the most exceptional emergencies in which to perform,” Wallace writes. Danger was a compulsion, the nearness and possibility of death a salve. He risked his life “as a way of life.”

But Nealy was more than a daredevil. He was an acute observer of the natural world. He drew river maps so detailed that they included micro-eddies, water flow patterns, individual rocks and vital navigational tips. The maps were enormous, three feet long, handmade and replete with half-comical illustrations of kayakers in various attitudes of panic and joy. Along with his 10 books about how to survive various outdoor challenges, they made him a celebrity in the subculture of extreme individual sports. One critic called Nealy “the R. Crumb of whitewater,” accurately capturing the tenor of his work, examples of which appear throughout Wallace’s memoir.

Wallace was 12 when his enthrallment with Nealy began. Nealy was 19, his older sister’s boyfriend, the epitome of cool — spontaneous, rebellious, magnetically attractive, everything the cautious boy was not but wished to be. After Nealy married Wallace’s sister, his influence over Wallace grew more complex, solidifying into an intense, sometimes ambivalent, form of hero worship.

Wallace writes of William Nealy, “The first time I saw him, he was standing on the roof of our house, wearing frayed and faded cutoffs, eyeing the swimming pool about 25 feet below.”

There was more to admire in Nealy than his flaunting of death. He devoted himself to the care of Wallace’s sister after she became incapacitated by an autoimmune disease at the age of 21. He was a fiercely loyal friend. He cherished animals. He was a man of few words — unaggressive, competent and self-assured: “He never, ever hurt a living soul, never could and never did.”

This made Nealy’s suicide, at age 48, all the more confounding. He appeared to have built exactly the life he wanted. What, then, propelled him toward this shocking act? Armed with his brother-in-law’s journals, Wallace sets out to construct an answer. Nealy’s accounts are terse, comprising mostly the barest facts, but through Wallace’s eye we glimpse Nealy’s hidden inner being. The problem wasn’t that his outward self was a lie, but rather that it completely concealed his painful sense of shame and falseness.

“I must not let them see who I really am!” Nealy wrote — “in big capital letters, the one and only time he did that in a thousand pages of writing,” Wallace explains.

Eventually, the widening chasm between Nealy’s inner and outer selves became unbreachable.

The British psychiatrist R.D. Laing warned of the perils of this divergence in his brilliant 1965 book “The Divided Self.” To shield the private (or “true” self, as Laing called it) is normal. But a fluid channel of communication between the two must remain open. Without it we run the risk of being torn in half.

Reading “This Isn’t Going to End Well,” I was put in mind of a scene from Fellini’s great movie “La Dolce Vita.” Marcello, an apathetic pop reporter spending his days and nights in pursuit of celebrity scoops and vacant pleasure, discovers that the one friend he believed to have achieved a life of meaning has killed himself. Any hope for moral coherence Marcello harbored is shattered. Wallace, by contrast, is able to part the curtain and reveal the hard truth behind such incomprehensible tragedies.

This is Wallace’s eighth book; his best known one is a novel, “Big Fish.” In this memoir, his writing can be repetitive. His descriptions of growing up in Birmingham, Ala., and struggling to become a writer are oddly generic. But by the end of this well-told story we understand the trap Nealy set for himself: He could no longer hide his pain, yet he could not live with it being seen.

Michael Greenberg is the author of “Hurry Down Sunshine.”

THIS ISN’T GOING TO END WELL: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew | By Daniel Wallace | Illustrations by William Nealy | 272 pp. | Algonquin Books | $28

Related Articles

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button