What do you get when you mix fact, fiction, fantasy, history, deception, decadence, ego, affluence, and ambition? You get madness! In this case–Thomas William Simpson’s remarkable novel This Way Madness Lies, a literary debut of enormous exuberance and daring imagination.
Wild Bill Winslow, 70, falls down the back stairs of the old family mansion in Far Hills, NJ. During the fall he breaks a few bones, questions his sanity and his immortality, and knocks himself cold. He’s discovered, broken and battered, by sweet Evangeline, who rushes him to the hospital. When Wild Bill comes around he asks his young mistress to summon his wayward children and his petulant second wife…
And so begins Simpson’s darkly comic tale of the Winslow dynasty and their New World adventure. With a grand cast of eccentric characters from both past and present, Simpson weaves a family saga laced with religion and rebellion, murder and mayhem, alcohol and drugs, infidelity and true love, and enough wars to make even the most peaceful Americans think twice about their heritage.
Wild Bill has nine offspring, some dead, most still among the living. Actors, ex-pats, playboys, forest rangers, full-blooded psychotics–they are a supremely alienated lot; alienated from Dear Old Dad, from one another, from the harsh glare of reality. They move through life like refugees from the womb.
One by one these tortured souls make their way home to the family manse. None of them are sure what they will find. Over the course of one of the wildest family reunions ever chronicled, one young Winslow will plot murder, another will commune with the dead, and all will become players in the larger drama of a family on the brink of collapse.
But the Winslow clan, like America itself, is a resilient lot. Since moving from the Old World to the New countless generations ago, they have survived shipwrecks, Indian attacks, economic ruin, marital dissolution, and more wars than any of them care to count. But they’re still standing, still battling, still searching for that elusive American Dream.
This Way Madness Lies draws on this present generation of Winslows in a search for clues about the origins of the family’s madness. What emerges is a fable of inevitability and fate; a story all at once compelling, comical, and deeply disturbing for it touches that place where we are all most vulnerable–family.
The Winslows may not be every American family, but strip away their swagger and their armor and what remains is the blood and guts of the American Experience–if such a fairytale still exists.
I come from a large, complex, and thoroughly dysfunctional family (though, of course, I find the phrase dysfunctional family entirely redundant). It makes perfect sense my first novel would use as its driving force the very subject I knew the most about.
I am the youngest sibling in my family, a full four years younger than my next oldest brother. A mistake, no doubt, from those days when the Pill was in its infancy. But it meant in my formative years I had my mama all to myself, and a father who had by that time mellowed considerably. I often find it remarkable my oldest siblings and I are talking about the same person when we reminisce about Wild Bill Simpson. They conjure up a monster just returned from the war, tough and uncompromising. I recall a pretty easy going guy who coached my teams and took me on a lot of weekend adventures to Civil War battlefields and other historical sites.
Unquestionably, from my low perch I had a unique perspective. For me it was mostly one of wonder and amusement, two qualities that have diminished but little.
As a kid I loved to watch my siblings battle with one another and with our father. That was the 60s, the high water mark of the hippie era and the great generation gap. Nightly at our dinner table there were boisterous arguments about the Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s rights, rock and roll, drugs, sports, just about everything under the sun.
It was some education, far more potent, and useful (at least for a budding author) than the mostly tedious and predictable one I received at our local public school.
Family. It’s where the whole crazy quilt of Life begins. I believe in taking a good, hard, honest look at your family, and particularly your individual place in that family. It’s where the truth lies. And often where the madness lies.
This Way Madness Lies. King Lear, probably suffering from dementia, clearly on the brink of mental and emotional collapse, implores his daughters, “Do not go that way, for that way madness lies!”
A first novel is like a first child, and if you are lucky enough to have a child you know precisely what I mean.
This Way Madness Lies is my first novel. I was a young, arrogant, ambitious guy when I wrote it. Full of the proverbial piss and vinegar. Teeming with self confidence. In awe of nothing but my own place in the world.
I recently read the book over for the first time in at least fifteen years. It’s flawed, as was I, but still it’s a hell of a good story, brimming with energy and creativity. Give it a try. I’m sure if you come from a dysfunctional family–and who doesn’t?–you’ll enjoy the ride.