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A Willingness to Take Flight

Big Fish author Daniel Wallace’s latest book is a nonfiction account of the death of his larger-than-life brother-in-law.

In death, our deepest truths are often bared to the ones we love. Our habits, our belongings and our baggage are unprotected from examination by those picking up the pieces once we’ve gone. We become vulnerable to all of the things we tried to hide in our existence. In This Isn’t Going To End Well, the death of his brother-in-law and longtime role model reveals to Daniel Wallace that he may not have known the man he admired as well as he believed.

In this brutally honest and true retelling of the life and impact of famous cartoonist William Nealy, Wallace exposes the raw emotions that bubble to the surface after losing someone to suicide. With unrelenting candor, the Big Fish author illuminates the hidden cracks in Nealy’s surface that led him to death in isolation, one by his own hand. 

This Isn’t Going To End Well acts as a posthumous timeline of Nealy’s life. While the title foreshadows the unfortunate culmination of the story, Wallace fills the cracks with the moments in their long history that placed Nealy on a pedestal to him.

Their story begins during Wallace’s childhood, when he witnesses Nealy’s brave leap from the roof of their home into a pool. Wallace describes this act by Nealy, who was his older sister’s boyfriend at the time, as magnificent and spell-bounding.

“It wasn’t some unformed idea I had about masculinity or manliness in him that I was drawn to; I wasn’t into that, then or now. It was just the wildness, the derring-do, his willingness to take flight—literally—into the unknown, an openness to experience and change that so far in my short life had not been previously modeled to me by anyone,” Wallace writes.

He asks his reader to see Nealy as he saw him that day, and not to reduce him to his ashes in a wooden box after his death. This encounter sets the tone for the rest of Nealy and Wallace’s relationship, and Wallace’s beautiful translation of their developing brotherhood is championed by his skillful narration and candid voice. 

From building projects to experimenting with drugs, Nealy was a near-constant in the lives of Wallace and his sister, Holly, who Nealy would go on to spend his life with.

This anecdote is also the reason Nealy’s death blindsided Wallace the way it did. Wallace makes this clear through the raw emotion—pain, anger and betrayal—he expresses upon grieving the death of the man he modeled parts of his own life after. 

This story is painful and, at times, hard to witness, but Wallace balances the good and the bad, the façade and the truth, in a way that invites you to keep reading. These moments are so intimate and personal to the author that you feel like a fly on the wall to the entirety of Nealy’s life, love, happiness and misery. 

This nonfiction story tells a hard truth about suicide and highlights the differences in the expressions of grief by those who are left to pick up the pieces. Wallace shows his audience who Nealy really is, after only discovering the truth of William Nealy himself following his excruciating death. 

This Isn’t Going To End Well is one of our Spring Reading Picks and is out on April 11.

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