Dead End
Gene Pool

A Memoir
Wendy Burden
Wendy Burden's early life was, according to her, a bummer, filled with drunk, drug-infested, vain, overpampered, hag-ridden great-grandparents, grandparents, and uncles. She had two depressed brothers who got lassoed by their own habits, and her mother, according to her, was a sodden, drunk, capital-C cynic. Her father? One day he drove "down to the DC city morgue, parked in front, and blew his brains out all over the backseat of the family car."

Despite these sour memories, Burden has a captivating way with words. She says her grandmother had the "IQ of a pull toy." Her grandfather "looked like an Edward Lear drawing of an old secretary bird wading around in a marsh." When she was thirteen, she found herself gawking at her first boyfriend, and "an unfamiliar worm would flip around in my future uterus,"

    and when the golden hairs of his forearm accidentally brushed against mine, I'd envision our dogs mating.

On her first date with him, "I concealed my glasses in a fringed shoulder bag,"

    along with a hairbrush, three pots of No. 19 lip gloss, and a tube of spermicidal jelly I was forced to shoplift from Boots the Chemist because I was too embarrassed to buy it.

§     §     §

This is a saga with an unlikely mix of the hilarious and the hideous. The closest to it in bile, bitterness and wit is perhaps the late John Callahan's classic Don't Worry He Won't Get Far on Foot.Or maybe the recent Lopsided: How Having Breast Cancer Can Be Really Distracting by Meredith Norton. There certainly are some asides in Burden's book that can be "really distracting."

Such as her last flight on the Concorde when she was still in her teens, coming back from one of her many trips to Paris. Her seatmate turns out to be Jacques Cousteau of undersea exploration fame. He "took my hand" as he spoke to her about "the linking of constituent universes, love, and transpersonal psychology."

    The Coulibiac of Salmon was served, and JC still had my hand, only now it was clamped to his thigh and he was asking me to "give in and feel the Power."

"Jesus Christ," she writes, "the guy was maybe eighty. I started to giggle."

Even though I am a member of the geeze set meself, can be and often am amused by stories of old goats making fools of themselves, there comes a point where Burden seems overly concerned not with her fascinating life, but with settling scores. Much of the ultimate part of Gene Pool is given over to describing, in wet, shaky, falling-down, diapered detail the final days of grandfather, grandmother, and mother (and her two brothers living under the constant self-inflicted assault of booze and drugs).

"What the hell was happening to everyone?" she asks at one point. "My grandfather was in diapers and couldn't speak, my grandmother was becoming a caricature of a drunk, my mother was getting fat." There's a long passage with grandfather Burden downing several bottles of (very good) Meursault and yelling "Phoo-ey!" at everyone and everything. Grandmother is plastered too, and sticks her fork in a cooked halibut, and then "drops it down --- as in all the way down --- the considerable depths of her bosom."

The story of their last days in the care of an army of nurses spares none of the details of their physical and mental failings, along with the loss of all human dignity. "A nurse was standing by the bed, holding on to my grandfather's exposed foot with the intimate familiarity of a woman holding on to her lover's cock." Wendy's last visit to her mother dying in a bitter Nantucket winter is sketched out in similar vitriolic detail.

This gifted writer who won our hearts with such pointed memories of a solitary, lonely youth ends up using her considerable talent with words to skewer those --- long gone --- who gave her so little of the love she felt she deserved when she needed it the most. Dead End Gene Pool thus comes to be less a memoir and more an example of elder abuse at its most flagrant and cruel.

--- Lolita Lark
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