Lucas Mann’s half brother, Josh, who died of a heroin overdose when the author was just 13, was a bad person according to just about every rubric that could be applied. Addictive personality aside, he was abusive, manipulative, ungrateful and unfair in his dealings with the opposite sex. He was worse than a bully. He was a bully who was readily and skillfully pathetic during moments of judgment or rebuke, never subject to attack while on the offensive.
He is also the subject of Mann’s excellent second book and first memoir. Drawing on interviews conducted with his family and friends and Josh’s copious journals — which quite neatly trace his descent from artistic and writerly aspiration to the dope-sick depths of addiction and self-hatred — Mann attempts to tell “a story about that life, that death, and the significance of both. When a man dies alone in his underwear, high, without having first found stardom to squander, of course, his significance is easy to forget.”
Difficult people have a uniquely pernicious quality. We can be drawn to them, encouraged by some sense of fairness to find depths within them and explain away their meanness. That exercise is not unworthy. It is in fact a testament to the expansiveness of Mann’s empathy that he makes no judgments of his own, despite the fact that he (and those he loved) were forced to live under a certain sort of tyranny of family, bound by goodness to care for this person who absolutely refused to be cared for.
Mann can only catalog the degradations — the plate of meatloaf thrown at his mother; the tortured house cat; the casual flaunting of his sickness to their other brother (“So, little brother, guess who’s been shooting dope”); the Nazi tattoo displayed with pride to their Jewish father — and trace their echoes through the halls of his family’s life.
But as a more complete picture of Josh is drawn, something greater than just his story emerges. Lord Fear is not a biography or an elegy or a even a memoir so much as it is a meditation on the function of grace, proof that love can defy all logic, transcend facts or even reality itself until it is almost indistinguishable from faith.
“To really believe what an addict tells you, tells himself, requires a predisposition for, or at least some experience in, faith,” Mann writes. “All you have seen is deterioration, but you are being promised regeneration, asked to trust that there remains some divinity, and despite how wholly unbelievable that is, you must believe.”
Mann’s first book, 2013’s Class A, was a genius piece of narrative reportage; Mann imbedded himself for an entire season with the Clinton Lumberkings, the single-A minor league baseball team at the lowest rung of the Seattle Mariners’ farm system. With Lord Fear, although its roots are firmly planted in the soil of fact, Mann allows himself something more akin to a fiction project, in the way that he sends out his imagination to inhabit those whose lives were affected by Josh.
Here he is commanding the inner voice of one of Josh’s many girlfriends, as they meet for the first time, Josh deploying halting Hindi in a sandwich shop on 26th Street: “She wants to ask him why he’s wearing a wool jacket on such a nice day. She wants to ask him how he knows Hindi. She wants to ask him what’s wrong because there does seem to be something wrong, a wince on his face even as he smiles, a throb, hard to explain, in his brown-green eyes. She wants to ask him why he spoke to her, why that small decision already feels like it matters.”
Small decisions lead to big decisions, and one day we are given cause to look up and regard the state of things, what is now the case and what is no longer. The point is ineffably simple, but it’s key to Mann’s work, clear in a sentence like “I wanted him to feel better than he felt.”
But wishing cannot make it so, and very much wanting bad things not to happen is no talisman at all against them. The best we can do sometimes is to look at things honestly, describe them as accurately as possible and say to each other, “Well, this is really kind of sad, isn’t it?” In his sensitivity for these sorts of states, Mann proves himself one of the most talented young nonfiction writers working today.
Nicholas Mancusi is a writer in New York.