Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Barefoot to Avalon

by David Payne

From New York Times notable author David Payne, “the most gifted American novelist of his generation” (Dallas Morning News), comes an astonishing memoir of brotherhood, grief, and mental illness.

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 336
  • Publication Date August 09, 2016
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-2517-0
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $18.00

About The Book

In 2000, while moving his household from Vermont to North Carolina, author David Payne watched from his rearview mirror as his younger brother, George A., driving behind him in a two-man convoy of rental trucks, lost control of his vehicle, fishtailed, flipped over in the road, and died instantly. Soon thereafter, David’s life entered a downward spiral that lasted several years. His career came to a standstill, his marriage disintegrated, and his drinking went from a cocktail hour indulgence to a full-blown addiction. He found himself haunted not only by George A.’s death, but also by his brother’s manic depression, a hereditary illness that overlaid a dark and violent family history whose roots now gripped David, threatening both his and his children’s futures. The only way out, he found, was to write about his brother.

Barefoot to Avalon is Payne’s earnest and unflinching account of George A. and their boyhood footrace that lasted long into their adulthood, defining their relationship and their lives. As universal as it is intimate, this is an exceptional memoir of brotherhood, of sibling rivalry and sibling love, and of the torments a family can hold silent and carry across generations. Barefoot to Avalon is a brave and beautifully wrought gift, a true story not only of survival in the face of adversity but of hard-won wisdom.


“A defining voice for his generation . . . Payne is extraordinarily gifted.” —Boston Globe

“Burns starkly and powerfully . . . a book that is, as much as anything, a study in the power of inexhaustible candor . . . like the best memoirs, it’s about something far harder to pin down, something unspecific and ineffable in the way time moves and lives fade, the moments that none of us can get back. . . . Payne’s writing is loose, confident and snappy, and he has a rare ability to distill enormous scope into a single sentence, sometimes a single image .
. . [Payne] gives us the ambiguities of real life, a story that is sometimes hard to take, but always worth it.” —Lucas Mann, San Francisco Chronicle

“Piercing . . . a tour de force.” —David Ulin, Los Angeles Times

“Intense, painful, and beautifully rendered . . . The story is built like a labyrinth. Memories and experiences are pathways leading into and out of others, deftly moving the reader forward and back in time…That David cuts himself no slack, and boldly, unflinchingly tells his own faulty story is remarkable.” —Patricia Ann McNair, Washington Independent Review of Books

“Powerful . . . a deep examination of many sorrows.” —People

“A super-honest, affecting personal narrative; Payne writes about his childhood, his parents, and his career with a novelist’s sensitivity to detail.” —GQ.com

“A memoir as raw, intimate and courageous as a series of midnight confessions fueled by a bottle of vodka . . . [Payne’s] barefoot journey, every brave and bloody step over broken glass, shows how even the darkest emotions and deepest wounds can yield to love.” —Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“Payne explores his family and all its troubled relationships and history, striking universal notes that will hit you where you live . . . Not since William Styron’s 1951 debut novel ‘Lie Down in Darkness’ has there been a more eloquent, courageous depiction.” —The Winston-Salem Journal

“Powerful, gripping, raw and tender.” —The News & Observer

“David Payne goes to the bone in his deeply felt Barefoot to Avalon.” —Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“Riveting family history [asks] complex questions about social prestige, mental health, and the ties that bind . . . powerful.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Moving . . . there’s a novelistic intensity to the story, with Payne dwelling on vivid recollected scenes, recreating their atmospherics and teasing out every buried emotional tremor and element of foreshadowing, but his prose also has the rawness of a confessional . . . Writing with a mixture of clear-eyed realism and lyrical elegy, Payne shows how a family’s pain, resentment, and loss get transmuted into love.” —Publishers Weekly

Barefoot to Avalon is simply magnificent. The book has the feeling of nothing at all reserved, a kind of go for broke passion. In this complete commitment it steps across a normal threshold between reader and book. It has because of this a powerful healing effect of a very strange, unusual kind. Reading it has been a huge experience.” —Suzannah Lessard

Barefoot to Avalon is one of the most powerful and penetrating memoirs I’ve ever read; it is fiercely honest, deeply engaging, and utterly heartbreaking.” —Jay McInerney

“The tangled ties of adult siblings are one of the most under-explored themes in literature. In Barefoot to Avalon, David Payne transforms the story of a brother’s death into a potent and heartbreaking meditation on love and loss and the long climb out of grief.” —Jenny Offil

“An elegy to a brother that plumbs depths beyond depths—a fever-dream of a memoir, a blazing map of familial love and loss, headlong and heartbreaking and gorgeously written.” —James Kaplan

“A major achievement and a whole new standard for memoir—Barefoot to Avalon is brave and brilliant, deep and true. Payne has tried to get the whole universe on the head of a pin, and done a fine job of it.” —Lee Smith

“A brother’s tragic death is at the heart of this memoir, but David Payne transcends the troubled relationship between his brother and himself to achieve something more—a compelling study of the inextricable link between the families we are born into and those that we try to create. Barefoot to Avalon is clear-eyed and unsentimental, which makes it all the more powerful and, ultimately, unforgettable.” —Ron Rash


Looking at the Winston glowing on his thigh, I almost say something about my pristine ashtray.

—Thanks, George A., I choose instead.

—It’s no big deal.

—No, seriously, man, I say. I couldn’t have done this without you. You’re a good brother.

These are words he hasn’t heard from me in quite some time. He contemplates them for a beat that stretches uncomfortably, and then he raises the Winston to his lips, inhaling openly. “It’s okay, David,” he says, and blows his smoke the other way, toward the shotgun seat.

As the Winston brightens near his face, the darkness in the cab seems like a pliant membrane into which his features press–the high cheekbones and strong chin, the black, pelt-thick hair already threaded, at forty-two, with silver. The dim light conceals the two black eyes he carries always by this time, like a fighter who’s staggered on the ropes night after night for years.

In the eight months or a year since I’ve seen him, those circles have darkened noticeably, a sign of stress on his adrenals. The tremor in his hands is more pronounced than I remember, and there’s a new floating in his walk like an astronaut in zero gravity or a somnambulist. He was so good-looking once, and splendid physically, with his broad shoulders and warm, deep eyes, dark as a Spaniard’s or a Russian’s, like Margaret’s. He reminded me of a young Clark Gable, only the confidence in Gable that flirted with conceit and smugness, in George A. was nuanced, sly and sweet. For a moment in the cab’s deceptive light, he resembles that other person, the boy and young man in that picture on the beach, the photo I think of as Before, as in before his illness, and have carried with me and put out in every house I’ve ever lived in.