The Money His Father Left Behind, and the Life it Would Start

Alexander Chee with his father in 1968. (Alexander Chee / BuzzFeed)

When Alexander Chee’s father died at the age of 43 he didn’t leave a will. Instead, his estate was divided evenly among his wife and three children. When he turned 18, Chee was bequeathed a trust, and the first thing he bought was something he thought his father would want for him — a black Alfa Romeo.

In an essay for BuzzFeed adapted from his forthcoming collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee recounts the nine years he spent spending the inheritance, often prudently — paying for college, grad school, and preparing for a life of the mind — and sometimes impetuously, like the purchase of the fast car his father would have loved.

For those nine years, I felt both invulnerable and doomed, under the protection of a spell that I knew to be dwindling in power. The Alfa broke down finally while I was driving from Iowa to New York City. I left it where it stopped, in Poughkeepsie, on the street in front of a friend’s apartment. That summer, newly released from graduate school, with no job and no prospects, I had no money to repair it or move it. Eventually the car, covered in unpaid tickets, was impounded and sold by the state to cover the towing and storage costs. My money gone, I surrendered to life without either the trust’s protections or the car. I know it was all stupid, and I was ashamed, and felt powerless in the face of the problem and ashamed of that powerlessness. But I was also tired of being mistaken for someone who was rich when I felt I had less than nothing.

I had believed I would feel lighter without the money, free of the awful feeling of having it but not having my father. And yet spending the last of it was not just like failing my father — it was like losing him again.

Read the story