Lord Fear by Lucas Mann
Luke Mann was 13-years-old when his brother Josh overdosed on heroin. He opens Lord Fear, a memoir of his brother’s life, at Josh’s funeral because, “I once read a Philip Roth novel that begins over a grave,” with a “clenched pack of modern, white-collar American Jews shuffling their feet and talking about a man who died unfinished…”The image is apt even if the protagonists of the two stories are divergent. The protagonist of Roth’s Everyman is “reasonable and kindly, an amicable, moderate, industrious man.” This is not how one would describe Josh. How, then?
This is the question that Luke sets out to answer in Lord Fear, a book that is as much about memory as it is about a single bloated addict lying in a pine box. Luke begins with the addict though, with a funeral vaguely recollected through a 13-year-old’s eyes.
“When a man dies alone in his underwear, high, without first having found stardom to squander, of course, his significance is easy to forget.”
Much of Josh’s life occurred in Luke’s absence or when Luke was too young to recall his much older half-brother. These stories he collects from others and, with their memories, incrementally constructs a portrait of Josh. It’s a portrait drawn in contradictions. To some Josh was a sadist, particularly in his youth, one who tormented his brother Dave and others to perilous limits. Others remember protecting Josh, recalled his frailty, while still others found him frightening and shrank from him. In layers we see Josh alternately loved, feared and cannonized.
“There was so much artifice to him. He didn’t want to relate; he wanted to be ogled.”
At a conference room table, Luke listens as Josh’s high school friend, Dan, reminsces about the dead man’s legendary antics. “‘Josh could do anything and would do anything.’ He says each anything with this heavy, cartoony, eyebrow-arching quality. I think so that we can share in that sense of wide-eyed dirty talk.” Dan and Josh become a dichotomy for Luke, one who grew into a man and one who just didn’t.
“That’s how Josh became a myth. Which can be great for a while – me and Dan laughing at the memories, talking about Josh being a crazy bastard with the kind of head-bobbing emphasis reserved for when the phrase crazy bastard is used by the uncrazy. A myth is so much better than a person, but as we repeat the myth again and again, different versions, closely scrutinized, the from doesn’t hold. It’s too inhuman.”
Such a myth might hold in a single individual’s memory – Dan’s for instance – but Luke confutes the myth, as through others’ memories he plumbs Josh’s contradictions, his incongruities. Lord Fear is comprised largely of Luke’s artful reimagining of these memories, refuting the ready-made addict narrative and compelling us deeply into his attempt to understand his brother.
Lord Fear is sad and difficult to read, particularly if you’ve been touched by the destructive forces of addiction or if you’re a parent whose guiding purpose is to shepherd your little ones from helplessness to self-reliance and safety. But, like the proverbial train wreck from which it is impossible to shield our eyes, Lord Fear is an extremely compelling read. Lucas Mann makes it so in his careful and artful rendering of the story, making it more than just another addiction memoir. It becomes a thoughtful meditation on the nature of memory itself.