By Daniel Wallace
With Illustrations by William Neely
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2023
$28, Hardcover; $14.99, Kindle
Reviewed by Danny Gamble
The very early 1970s, Homewood, Alabama, harbored few “hippies.” Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish and five other novels, introduces two—his sister Holly and her life-long companion, William Neely. Make that three if you count Daniel, and you should. This is his story after all. His new memoir This Isn’t Going To End Well: The True Story of a Man Who I Thought I Knew is a physical, psychological, and philosophical, race to THE END, as in “This is the end, my only friend, THE END.”
“Hippie” may be too cliched, too archaic a label. Perhaps readers should simply recognize these characters as “free thinkers.” Sure, there were the requisite jeans and T-shirts, the halter tops and miniskirts, the music, “loud, angry, playful”—Ramones, Alice Cooper, Stones (not Beatles), and for Holly, Leon Russell.
Holly was six years Daniel’s senior and a firebrand unto herself, the type of girl who got sent home from high school for wearing her dresses too short. In his journal, William describes Holly as “an intelligent, danger-loving sex bomb…irritating, demanding, powerful, but wow.” At twenty-one, Holly began to suffer the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. William nursed her to the end.
Then there’s William—comic cartographer, climber of mountains, tamer of rivers, “the kind of man Hemingway would have liked.” William, who built with his own hands a house for Holly, a North Carolina mountain retreat. With royalties from his illustrated river maps, he bought a houseboat, a retreat from a retreat. William, writer of ten books, mostly on subjects of “death activities” such as “racing down treacherous trails on his mountain bike.”
William was 18, a high school dropout when Daniel first noticed him, perched upon a rooftop, soon to leap from roof to pool. To Daniel, William “was a hero, like Odysseus, or Archilles, or Clint Eastwood.” Years later, this hero worship cooled a bit. Chalk it up to age and domestic bliss.
Daniel’s memoir does have a subplot—the murder of Edgar Hitchcock. Daniel writes, “If William was Adonis, Edgar was a court jester.” Edgar was William’s best friend. Most everyone on Birmingham’s Southside remembers Edgar—floor manager at Dugan’s Tavern, part owner of Cosmo’s Pizza, but Edgar had a secret life—dealer of high-grade cocaine.
After Edgar’s disappearance with little to no conclusive evidence by the Birmingham Police investigation, William loaded Holly into their van and made a beeline to their former hometown. William did solve the case, and with William’s help, the police eventually found Edgar’s skeletal remains. William named the murderer, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. William was devastated, his best friend murdered.
William became more and more despondent. He had written of his depression as early as 1978, age twenty-24. He spent the last few weeks of life making lists of how to get along without him. He complained of physical ailments.
William wrote his last words on a pad inside his van at the marina where he and Holly kept their houseboat. The note reads simply:
My name is William Neely. Please call Daniel Wallace…as soon as you read this. I’m behind the office building. A copy of my DNR is in the glove compartment.
Part narrative, part internal monologue. Daniel tells his tale of love and loss in a type of lyrical prose. Of William’s final days he writes, “The winter sky was a blanket of grey, the sun dulled behind it, no warmer than the moon.”
Danny Gamble writes from Montevallo, Alabama.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline Number: 988 or 800-273-8255