bailey binge: charles jackson

Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson is a wonderful and unexpected biography of an author who’s mostly out of print today but who plucked a resonant chord in the 1930s with his one great novel, The Lost Weekend—about which plenty has been said with respect to how it’s the best-ever portrait of an alcoholic, and, after grabbing a copy and zipping through it in a couple days, I’m inclined to agree, and to marvel not just at its propulsion, and its accuracy, but also at how, after nearly a hundred years, the novel doesn’t feel dated almost at all (except maybe in little things like for instance the way that Jackson puts an apostrophe whenever abbreviating the word telephone to just ‘phone).

            Otherwise it reads like it was written the other day. Fast and conversational and disturbing.

            What I mostly wanna talk about though are a couple things that Farther and Wilder brought to mind about (1) the writing of biography and (2) the Biographer’s conspicuous joy on these pages—and that first part, about the craft of biography, is a point of particular interest here, in this Bailey Binge, because while Farther and Wilder isn’t much smaller or less comprehensive than Blake Bailey’s two earlier biographies (of the writers Richard Yates and John Cheever respectively) it does appear to’ve been pieced together from a smaller trove of material. The Biographer talks in the book’s Afterword about how helpful Jackson’s two daughters were in the writing of this book, both of them probably in their seventies or eighties, and he also riffs, at greater length than I think any place else, about his research process.

            With Farther and Wilder we get insights both into the craft of biography and the approach of this Biographer—who, for our purposes here, is not Blake Bailey.

Not exactly.

Rather, it’s the discrete narrator-persona that takes shape and evolves from book to book.

            So anyway. Let’s fuck with it.

One of the defining characteristics of Jackson’s novels and stories is that they’re pretty much entirely auto-fiction, meaning they’re based on stuff that happened to him personally; it’s good writing, in other words, that isn’t particularly imaginative, with Jackson himself musing in later years that he simply never seemed to have the chops for total invention. Thus, his well of ideas is always limited to the occasionally glitzy but mostly pedestrian (and drug-fogged) events of his own life as a closeted gay drug addict with humble small-town origins and a spotty relationship with showbusiness. His hope was to build a huge Proustian opus out of it.

            The odds were against him.

Interesting parallel: the Biographer’s portrait of Jackson was limited, too, by the simple distance, in calendar pages, between himself and his subject; the near-total absence, for instance, of surviving contemporaries to interview (Jackson was born in 1903). Also, a worm-eaten tapestry of correspondence (papers lost to time) that leave the Biographer having to surmise what was said in certain documents that can’t be found (albeit always convincingly, and with evidence to back it up).

He doesn’t make a fuss of these obstacles, and I don’t suppose a casual reading would even lend to the conclusion that this particular biography posed a unique challenge; but if you’re reading it closely on the heels of his earlier books, you’ll notice that the Biographer is invoking an exceptionally eclectic pool of research material. A diary from here, an unpublished novel from this other person, an unproduced screenplay from someone else…

            It’s clear that the Biographer had to get crafty.

            As such, Bailey’s biography of Jackson shows the Biographer in a new mode, and it has to do with his handling of a less-than-ideal amount of information, as opposed to the deluge that characterized his last project.

We discussed how, with his books about John Cheever and Philip Roth, the biographer had to study, digest, and then contextualize a volcanic amount of information, and then organize and winnow it down into a comprehensive narrative.

            That’s the defining challenge.

            And the same might be said of the Biographer’s task with his own short memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned, which is a pretty Spartan distillation of a lifetime’s drama and introspection (the product, I should add, of a pain so massive it waits until the very last page to punch you, like an emotional haymaker he’s been winding for 230 pages).

            In writing about Charles Jackson, it’s almost the opposite.

            It seems this book was born less from a pile of info than a scattering of clues. The Biographer is assessing a scarcity of firsthand material and then working laterally, exploring second-hand documents, in order to flesh out the scene. He’s working with a constellation of keyhole glimpses of Jackson, culled from a bunch of different directions, and creating a kind of crystal of impressions, the shining a light through that crystal to project a colorful tableau on the wall…

You and I are probably in the same boat of being a little turned off at the idea of reading a big biography about someone so obscure, despite the rapturous reviews, and therein resides another development in Bailey’s career at this point:

            It isn’t the reader’s interest in Charles Jackson that sells Farther and Wilder (as might have been the case with Cheever and Yates), it’s the reader’s trust in a now-revered biographer.

Incidentally: when I say there’s a shortage of first-hand material pertaining to Jackson I mean, of course, a relative shortage. Bailey quotes a score of letters, and he’s got access to different drafts of Jackson’s works, fragments, medical records—it’s a rich supply.

            But things are missing. In at least one instance, there’s a whole story that’s unaccounted for. We know of it only from hints in Jackson’s letters and a few notes. Things have fallen through the cracks and, narcissism notwithstanding, Jackson left no 4,300-page diary to spell things out.

            But, as a result of that relative scarcity, Bailey (the Biographer-character) is more vividly present, in this book, than I think even in his memoir.


            I’ll tell you howcumzit.

Maybe I’m looking too much into his one particular interview in which Bailey discusses Farther and Wilder with his colleague, the biographer D.T. Max, at The Strand in NYC (they’re colleagues, they’re in arm chairs, the mood’s relaxed) but he seems (Bailey does) to be more effusive than ever before about what fun he had in writing about Jackson.

            I don’t find him striking quite so enthusiastic a tone in interviews about Cheever, or his memoir.

            So let’s say, in the interest of relatively baseless internet conjecture, that the Biographer did actually enjoy writing this book more than the others.

            If that’s the case, I think I can see why.

Bailey’s clearly an energetic guy and a world-class talker who, if given the room to expound, will cross an ankle over his knee, clutch the shit out of that ankle with both hands, lean forward and expound, goddamn it, brow furrowed and eyes on the ground, his monologue a a-crackle with what sounds like the vocal rust of a man who spends way more time reading than talking.

            He’s about as accessible as an author could be.

            That being said, my impression of the Biographer is that he’s not entirely comfortable talking about himself, or addressing his thematic concerns about life, death, sex, writing, parenting and the rest of it by just speaking from a Perch of Self, like Miller Mailer Montaigne, essaying, thinking aloud, digressing, self-negating; what he seems to prefer is to use his biographical subjects as vehicles for exploring those themes in clear, direct, often lyrical language. For what might be a Jacksonian mix of great literary talent with fewer powers of invention, he creates Great Novels out of things that actually happened, people who actually were.

            Harold Bloom said of Shakespeare’s better plays that you can bring just about any thematic concern to them and they will “illuminate” that concern.

            For example: Hamlet isn’t about sex—but if you wanna read it through a lens of sex (or of politics or parenting or whether to follow your lover to a new city) you’ll find some meaty stuff. Metaphors and phrases that apply to your personal situation.

            Not to go head-over-heels here and say that Bailey is Shakespeare—what I think is just that Bloom’s thesis about Shakespeare applies to great literature in general, and that you can take the same approach with Cheever. That book is “about” that man, about his life and concerns, but if you’re fascinated by human sexuality, you can read that book strictly through a lens of sexuality and find a lotta fruit. If you’re fascinated by addiction, you can read that book and find just as much. If you’re fascinated by writing, or homemaking, or travel, or culture, or sibling relationships, or however many other topics—there’s a legitimate master’s thesis to be written about Cheever through probably any of those lenses ( recently re-read that portrait of a love-starved narcissist in the waning weeks of Trump’s presidency and, oh boy, is there a thesis to be written…).

            In other words, the Biographer creates a portrait of his subject that is so sprawling and multifaceted and thorough, it becomes vague, like a Rorschach blot, allowing the reader to look at it and see the themes that concern them, personally, brought to life.

And I think the reason these books are so thematically comprehensive, so rounded, is because the biographer isn’t just trying to cover his subject from every angle—he’s trying to encompass the scope of his thematic concerns.

            You can’t write about one person for ten years unless that journey is gonna engage your own personal multitudes, unless your own personal decade of joy and grief and whatever else is gonna be eligible for exploration in that project.

            There’s something incredibly intimate about doing a public dissection of another person’s life.

            It’s almost as revealing to write a book about one’s own sexuality, one’s own insecurities, as it is to unblushingly quote and expound on Cheever’s insecurities at being “shortcocked,” or to talk with unsparing detail about some humiliating drunken episode of his.

            What the Bailey Binge has gotten me thinking is that a really scrupulous biography is as much an act of self-disclosure, on the part of the biographer, as it is an investigation into their subject.

            This isn’t to say that these books have any heavy thematic tilt in the direction of Bailey’s personal interests; it isn’t like, because Bailey’s interested in dinosaurs, well, fuck it, we’re getting passages about everyone’s favorite dinosaur.

            But I do think, for instance, that Bailey’s being a recent father made him more interested in Cheever’s parent-child relationships than a typical biographer would have been (much to the benefit of both reader and subject).

            I think the elusiveness of Bailey’s own success as a young aspiring novelist made him uniquely empathetic with Yates’s own doomed pursuit.

            Stuff like that.

Mary McCarthy

And I think that what the Biographer probably enjoyed so much in writing about this guy, Charles Jackson, was the fact that, given the (relatively) shallow pool of primary documents and firsthand witnesses, the Biographer had to construct his story sideways. He had to consult the papers of Mary McCarthy, had to read the diaries of Jackson’s peers (his father-in-law’s succinct diary sentences make for hysterical punctuation of dramatic episodes), he had to look at the Hollywood scene and probably immerse himself, more completely than ever before, in a different historical period.

            (Tangential Question: I’ve been wondering about the extent to which Bailey studies a subject’s historical moment. For instance: The Great Depression, World War II, and the Kennedys are a few of the historical topics that factor into his subjects’ lives with varying degrees of import. How exhaustively does he feel he has to know WWII before he can do a proper job of detailing Richard Yates’s experience as a soldier? How much about Demjanjuk or Watergate to understand Roth’s interest and ire?)

            My point is that there are parts of Farther and Wilder where Charles Jackson feels like a vehicle for the Biographer to navigate the larger cultural scene—the literary and Hollywood and radio scenes of the 1940s, in particular.

            We get vivid images, off to the side of Jackson’s story, of episodes like this, where one of his contemporaries, an alcoholic, accidentally swallows a bunch of glass after pouring whisky from a broken bottle.

One day in January 1947, a maid let herself into [Wister’s] Tudor City apartment and found him standing in the living room, unsteadily, strings of blood dangling from his open moth. Once again he’d smashed off the neck of a whiskey bottle, but this time he’d swallowed some of the broken glass. He bled to death within a few hours (or rather died “after a brief illness,” according to the Times).

            When bailey quotes an exquisite (and chunky) excerpt from an unfinished novel that Mary McCarthy was writing about Jackson, it’s the beauty and power of McCarthy’s voice that eclipses even her brilliant insights into our hero. Her writing is so spectacular, and the excerpt so long, it’s like the biographer is tilting the spotlight away from Jackson and toward McCarthy, telling us, Look at this character for a minute.

            I fell in love with her, and think you will too.

Not talking much here about Billy Wilder’s adaptation of The Lost Weekend, but it swept the Oscars, and I wrote about it a couple years ago here.

I think it’s also telling that the Biographer goes on at such length, in the Afterword, about his research process. After a subject like John Cheever, whose voluminous diary probably gave the investigating Biographer a sensation like plummeting down a deep narrow well, into a single person’s psyche, his research into Jackson was expansive, broadening; he got into his subject by stepping away and exploring others; also, given that most parties involved are long dead, there probably wasn’t much breath on his neck while he worked on it, people prepared to draw knives about their depiction in the final product.

            You can feel the Biographer’s freedom here.

I think he’s appreciating, too, that a reader’s unfamiliarity with Jackson will invite the scene-stealing cameos of more familiar names; Billy Wilder, for instance, or Judy Garland, or Mary McCarthy, or Ray Milland.

            Fuck it, even a beautiful Intermezzo about the openly gay life of Jackson’s brother.

(Another thesis to be written: “The Nature of Writer-Brother Relationships in the Work of Blake Bailey”.)

The Biographer, in all of these books, appears most vividly in the footnotes—and the final line of this book’s footnote section is one of the most emotionally perfect jolts in his body of work.

            I won’t give he line away here, because I think its emotional weight has to be worked toward, but it’s as uplifting a line as the last line of his memoir is devastating.

            A disparity worth chewing on.

I’m also realizing that aimlessness is a big theme in Bailey’s work.

            In A Tragic Honesty, so much of the drama comes from Yates being stuck in his novels, turning sentences around for years and years, advancing with a sort of agonized tedium that sparked lots of brooding and self-doubt—which in turn drove him to harder and harder drinking, which in turn probably stymied the novels more…

Cheever, as he would certainly have liked to see himself.

Then with Cheever we see some of the same: as he starts drinking earlier and earlier in the morning, he gets less and less writing done; and, same as Yates, he gets absolutely mired in his novels. His first one, The Wapshot Chronicle, torments him with a seemingly endless series of false starts. He knows the story he wants to tell, but can’t get it going. Also, much is made of the way that his third novel, Bullet Park, meanders toward a kind of bizarre violent conclusion.

            Cheever and Yates (and Jackson in The Lost Weekend) also focus their literary interests on characters who are stuck—stuck in unfulfilling jobs that lead them nowhere, marriages that languish, evenings that while themselves away in cocktails…

            In The Splendid Things We Planned, his brother Scott’s aimlessness is there in the foreground, with drug abuse and mental illness and strange romances and half-interested schooling, but also, in the background, there’s the aimlessness of Blake’s own twenties. The heavy drinking, the voracious reading, lounging by the pool…

            It seems like the Biographer is interested in people whose lives are largely defined by what didn’t happen to them, rather than what did.

            And now, in the biography of Charles Jackson, we get a writer who pretty pointedly doesn’t write. He shoots off letter after letter telling people what he’s going to write, and how fantastic it’s going to be, and how it’ll surpass the success of Lost Weekend and change American fiction.

            But then he doesn’t write it.

            This Biographer is drawn toward subjects who wander.

            Or is it simply the case that most lives, when studied closely, reveal long spells of aimlessness?

            This is one of the reasons I think Bailey’s forthcoming biography of Philip Roth will show him in yet another mode. It’ll be the first time he’s written about a subject who was alive to participate, for one thing, but Roth will also be his most prolific subject to date. More than thirty books in sixty years. Plus multiple marriages, major surgeries, a vast social and romantic life.

            It’ll be interesting to study.

            And I hope that Blake Bailey will join me, on Thousand Movie Project Podcast, to discuss it.

Submit a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s