BAREFOOT TO AVALON: A Brother's Story, by David Payne. Atlantic Monthly Press, 294 pp., $26.

Novelist David Payne was smoldering on the inside, an alcoholic and insomniac bound by a sacred family commandment: Thou shalt not betray this household's dark secrets, for it is a blasphemy against thine own blood kin.

Fortunately for us, Payne concludes that his sanity obligates him to violate the ancient honor code. Against his mother's objections, Payne sets out to write about his mentally ill younger brother, George A., and the tragic crackup of his eastern North Carolina clan.

The result, "Barefoot to Avalon: A Brother's Story," is a riveting meditation upon a family's accursed history of mental illness, failed marriages, ruined careers, violent suicides and Payne's own potential complicity in his bipolar brother's death at age 42.

Dysfunctional families are nothing new in memoirs, but what gives these biographical particulars their existential wallop is Payne's raw, sustained intensity. Reading Payne can feel like a near-physical experience, of being swept along by sinister forces that in different ages have gone by such names as original sin, melancholia, madness and, most recently, brain chemistry.

The stylistic bravura on display here affirms Payne's decision to become a writer, a course he charted to break from his past, yet one that nearly breaks him.

"I conceived a wish to escape the contest altogether, to be a Poet and to find another Earth where there's no casting down of one so one can be uplifted," Payne writes of his formative years. "And I've followed poetry like a religious practice and spent hour after hour in my carrel reading Jung and Eliot and Whitman to seek a path out of the fracas, to prove that the dark force that was in my father isn't in me also." Payne, a founding faculty member in the MFA Creative Writing Program at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina, replays events in Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem, Henderson and Kill Devil Hills, as they later unspool in his life in New Hampshire, New York and Vermont.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The fiercely competitive, talented brothers inherit the family curse through their father, Bill, an alcoholic and a gambler who at one point threatens to kill David and attempts to rape their mother. Bill embezzles from the family timber business, is stripped of his pension and becomes a tragic castaway, eventually taking his own life with a bullet.

David self-medicates with literature (and alcohol), drops out of UNC-Chapel Hill to fortify his soul as a cabinetmaker and commercial fisherman. He withdraws to a hermit-like existence to work on his first novel, culminating in a 36-hour writing bender that he describes as "a state bordering on madness." George A. recovers from several psychotic episodes but in 1991 torpedoes his finance career by making unauthorized investments while in a manic state. Capitulating to his malfunctioning brain, he moves back in with his mother for the final nine years of his life.

The family's downward spiral is telescoped in George A.'s death, which David witnesses and describes in agonizing detail. The emotional aftershocks linger for years, even through David's eventual catharsis.

"Don't hesitate to judge me as severely as I judged my brother, and maybe if you do, and if I can prove with your concurrence that I'm to blame," he writes, "I can finally get some peace from the acceptance that I must have wanted this and caused it by some mystic spell or incantation."