Book: The Living End by Robert Leleux
Reviewed by: Sophia
I am a big fan of memoir. I love reading about lives and how they are lived. Over the past month, my memoir of choice has been Robert Leleux’s The Living End, which details the author’s experience of struggling with his maternal grandmother’s approaching death.
Many characters’ stories are woven together throughout The Living End, but the true star is rightfully JoAnn, Leleux’s grandmother and a glamorous Southern lady. Married to a wealthy oil businessman, JoAnn wears impeccable clothing and hosts frequent dinner parties at her lavish home in the Houston suburbs. One year, she sends Robert thousands of dollars worth of books for his birthday (of this, I am jealous). JoAnn is also strong-willed, has a sharp tongue, and is distinctly a veteran of the Kennedy administration; when a neighbor complains about losing her job, JoAnn is quick to eviscerate her, pointing out that what’s really hard is JFK being shot in the head, with his wife nearby.
Although you wish Leleux would provide more anecdotes like these to flesh out JoAnn’s character to the fullest, what he does provide is enough to make her loom as large in your mind as she does in his. This is the greatest strength of The Living End—Leleux’s characterization of JoAnn, a woman others say could have easily starred on Broadway or in Hollywood movies. Her description encourages you to remember those who have captivated you in your own life. Though you don’t know JoAnn personally, you find yourself caring about her fate, just as you would your own loved ones’.
The Living End is aimed generally at those dealing with the grief of loss. Specifically, it is a book about Alzheimer’s, symptoms of which JoAnn begins exhibiting after a major surgery. As Leleux points out, Alzheimer’s is a disease little understood that has come about as a diagnosis only within the past decade. But for those who have witnessed Alzheimer’s, the experience is distinct: memory loss, incoherence, moodiness, lapses into childlike behavior. The Living End is a portrait of those behaviors, and, through JoAnn, puts a human face on them.
In doing so, The Living End rewrites the narrative of living with illness. It answers Susan Sontag’s call in Illness as Metaphor to change the language used to describe disease as victimizing. Moving beyond seeing his grandmother’s illness as a tragedy, Leleux instead focuses on its comedy. A major focus of the memoir is the reconciliation of JoAnn with her daughter Jessica. Leleux’s mother is as much a delight of a character as JoAnn: both stubborn and outspoken, they inevitably butt heads. However, JoAnn’s Alzheimer’s allows her to forget old resentments and relate to Jessica anew; the two set about reforming their relationship.
The Living End is distinctly a memoir about Texas and Texas people. Leleux’s first memoir, The Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy, is about the experience of growing up gay in the Lone Star State. Leleux, who earlier this year was featured in a New York Times article about Texans now living in New York, continues to draw upon his identification with the state’s distinct personality types and behaviors. The Living End contains many descriptions of his grandparents’ upbringings in the state, full of Cotton Bowl Balls and Bob Wills on the radio.
Leleux’s clear affection for Texas is both endearing and refreshing for Texas readers—who wouldn’t want that kind of doting affection poured upon something as central to your life as place? With New York transplant writers, there’s always the risk they will reflect upon their place of birth with some disregard; after all, they left for a reason. However, Leleux dodges this artfully. He characterizes Texas the way he does his grandmother: acknowledging their flaws and idiosyncrasies but with the greatest affection and all the while harping on their good qualities, too.