Years ago, a young man named Blake Bailey enrolled at Tulane, in New Orleans. He did fine. Nothing extraordinary. Then he arrived at the major academic hurdle of anyone’s undergraduate years—the senior thesis. Understandably, he chose to write about the novelist Walker Percy; after all, Percy will forever be associated with New Orleans. The thesis turned out well. One professor called it “a model of the form”. Bailey began to wonder if he could make a living from writing.
Years passed. Bailey taught children, and he slowly grew comfortable with the idea of being an adult. He didn’t lose his interest in writing. In 1999, he began to investigate the life of a semi-obscure author whose masterwork once lost the National Book Award to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. In other words, Bailey began to read about the great, neglected writer Richard Yates, whose classic novel, Revolutionary Road, was actually out of print in 1999.
Many bookworms will know what happened next. Bailey produced one of the great literary biographies of all time, A Tragic Honesty, which helped to bring Yates’s work back into the spotlight, and which earned a nomination for the National Book Critics Circle Award. It’s hard, now, to recall a time when Revolutionary Road was not a well-known title—when it wasn’t glamorously linked with the faces of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. For Yates’s posthumous literary resurgence, we have Bailey (among some others) to thank.
Bailey’s Yates biography is ridiculously gripping. It’s the sort of book that seems to grab its reader by the throat; it’s as fast-paced and eloquent as Jonathan Harr’s A Civil Action. Bailey reveals that Yates worked as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy, suffered through several psychotic breakdowns, inspired a famous episode of Seinfeld, and lived in roach-infested quarters, writing all morning, drinking all night. How could someone so messy produce such gorgeous work? The story is nearly unbelievable.
Note that the Yates biography did not win the National Book Critics Circle Award. However, Bailey’s next book did take home this prize, and it nearly won the Pulitzer. The book in question is Cheever: A Life. Even longer than the brick-sized Tragic Honesty, Cheever is just as addictive. It’s possible that the subject—the life of John Cheever—is even more sordid than the life of Richard Yates.
Cheever was a semi-closeted homosexual who often loathed his own wife and children—and did little to conceal the fact. Late in life, he became somewhat astoundingly callow, and had a boyfriend administer a hand job to him while Mrs. Cheever puttered in the living room downstairs. John Cheever may or may not have had an incestuous relationship with his brother; went through many years of almost non-stop drunkenness; once tried to go nude (and blitzed) to an opera with his patient, young friend John Updike; wrote quite nasty comments about the work of that same patient, young friend, John Updike; dropped out of AA when no one believed he was capable of fighting his own alcoholism; became entirely sober; and produced Falconer, a major work that won a spot on a list of great 20th century novels compiled by Time.
Bailey has since helped to resuscitate the literary reputation of Charles Jackson, who wrote The Lost Weekend. Also, Bailey has been selected to create the authorized biography of Philip Roth.
All this is, to me, an impressive resume, yet it’s not the whole story. While cranking out these definitive biographies, Bailey has also been, intermittently, at work on a book about his family, The Splendid Things We Planned. It’s taken Bailey many years to complete the story, though the book itself is actually rather short. You will see why Bailey needed so many years of drafting; you will see in due time…
Bailey grew up in Oklahoma in the ‘60s. His father was a dedicated lawyer, and his mother was an angry bohemian. Why did she have to be a housewife in the Midwest? She longed for urban adventures. She surrounded herself with vaguely disreputable, drug-addled men, and she conducted at least one extramarital affair within earshot of young Blake. Life wasn’t rosy.
Blake had an older brother, Scott, who seemed to have a great deal of charisma and potential. However, Scott didn’t go very far. Early in his adult life, he discovered the thrills of alcohol. He couldn’t seem to finish his academic work, and he couldn’t really commit to a job. He spent time in prison; he totaled cars. Eventually, the alcohol wasn’t enough; Scott turned to heroin. He became a male prostitute to fund his addictions. A sense of proper boundaries was not among his strengths. He tried to seduce his stepmother; he even tried to seduce Blake.
When things got really bad, Scott lived alone with his divorced biological mother. (It’s rarely a good sign for a grown man to be living alone with his mom. Think of Norman Bates. Think, also, of Adam Lanza, who was responsible for the massacre at Newtown.) ...Scott seemed to have physically abused his mother’s cats, because they ran away whenever he was in the room. Scott also spoke at length about his sexual interest in young girls, and wondered aloud if his schoolteacher brother had ever considered molesting a student.
If a family member accosted Scott about his use of substances, Scott would invariably say, “What? I’ve just had a few beers…”
Eventually—spoiler alert—life becomes unbearable for Scott. He ties a slipknot to his bed and strangles himself. This is hard for me to envision. At first, it was reported, incorrectly, that Scott had hanged himself. It seems that what he really did was to bring about a kind of “horizontal hanging”—a hanging in which his body was parallel to the ground.
Blake Bailey describes all of this tragedy with candor. He even manages to retain a sense of humor. And he is often honest about his own failings. Once, his father (inexplicably) informed him that he was “better” than his older brother and he, Blake, found a way to share this information with Scott. In college, Blake was a heavy-drinking frat boy who could not be bothered to wash his cups. The cups gathered in ever-growing stacks around the kitchen, acquiring mold, attracting animals—and it seems that this state of affairs was fine with Blake. Further, Blake admits to having wished, at times, that his brother was permanently imprisoned or even dead.
It’s been said that, when you’re reviewing a memoir, you’re really reviewing the writer’s personality, not just the writer’s literary creation. I think there’s some truth in that observation. At times, I found it difficult not to judge Bailey. He has such empathy for Yates and Cheever, I was surprised that he didn’t always work hard to inhabit his brother’s train of thought. For example, he becomes annoyed when he learns of his dead brother’s wish to have a passage about charity read aloud at his (Scott’s) funeral. Blake asks, how could Scott presume to lecture him, and his family, on charity, when they put up with his bullshit for many, many years?
I see his point. At the same time, as I read, I wanted to try to defend Scott. Yes, Scott was a monster; he was also a man who had been called inferior by his own father, a man with some organic disturbances, and a man whose family regularly mocked him to his face. There is a branch of psychology that focuses on dysfunctional families. In such a family, there is often an “identified patient”—a child, or adult, who becomes the family’s jester, the butt of the family’s jokes, the repository for the family’s many anxieties. Scott was a scapegoat in his family. He often seemed to be asking for empathy. Instead, he was lectured and mocked.
Again, I’m not saying that Scott was an appealing human being. But I do think it’s possible to ask Bailey to reflect more carefully on his brother’s trajectory, and on his parents’ role in the family drama.
Given Bailey’s erudition, it seems fair to expect a bit more objectivity and self-analysis in this memoir. (For example, Bailey might have benefited from reading Richard Russo’s tremendously moving book, Elsewhere, in which Russo examines the life of a similarly problematic family member, and searches himself a bit more relentlessly than Bailey seems capable of.)
That said, I couldn’t put the Bailey memoir aside. It was a pleasure to read, and it raised some haunting questions.