A father's search for meaning in the death of his son
MEMOIR:The academic, poet, author and editor Robert Welch has written a compelling account of his son Egan’s life and untimely death after a long struggle with alcoholism
Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death, By Robert Anthony Welch, Darton, Longman and Todd, 199pp, £12.99
In a note to his parents before his third suicide attempt, Egan Welch wrote: “If I die / It is not the alcohol that killed me, its [sic] something else?” That question mark is strange, unexpected; it looks like a call to his parents to help him understand what it was that was killing him – or was about to. In a sense, Kicking the Black Mamba: Life, Alcohol and Death, is a father’s attempt to answer that call, to get at the “something else” that in the end killed his son.
Egan died by accidental drowning in 2007, in the River Bann outside Coleraine, having struggled with alcoholism for a number of years. He was 26 years old, one of his parents’ four children. His father, Robert Welch, is dean of arts and a professor of English literature at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, the author and editor of numerous books of poetry, criticism and fiction.
Welch notes in his preface to this book that it was not written for therapeutic reasons, but is instead “a search for meaning in the death of a greatly loved son”. I think what he means is that the book is not mere therapy, a “chronology of misery”, but an undertaking that is intellectual, spiritual and literary, as well as personal. Because surely the search for meaning, particularly in the face of crisis and loss, is therapeutic in the broadest and best sense? Sven Birkerts has likened memoir-writing to “repetition compulsion” – the psychological process whereby “an individual keeps symbolically re-enacting a distressing situation, hoping to master it, to get it right and be free of it”. If the writing of narrative is the imposition of order on chaos, then memoir is perhaps that imposition enacted most explicitly. Welch has here produced a compelling memoir, a book both stark and tender, though not without its flaws.
Egan’s life, up to the point when it went seriously off the rails around 2003, had had its trials and its glimmers of promise. He had struggled with anorexia as a teenager and was often beaten up. He failed his A-levels. But he was also clever and energetic. He taught himself to write code, and in one scene in the book explains the binary principle of Boolean algebra to his father. He started a web-design business in his early 20s – a joint venture with a “ruthless local businessman” that we are given to understand lost a lot of money. He had also lost his closest friend, beaten to death outside a nightclub in Portrush in 2000.
Alcohol and history
In the aftermath of these agonies, Egan “took to drink for solace”. And here we move into the territory of speculation. Why was Egan an alcoholic? Why is anyone? Was he an alcoholic waiting to happen or was the illness the result of a perfect storm of circumstances? Alcoholism seems to be, like almost everything else under the sun, a combination of genes and environment, though the part played by each is still unclear.