In Blake Bailey's 'The Splendid Things We Planned', a Family Resembles a Den of Lions

Have you ever wondered why biographer Blake Bailey has chosen to write at length about three notably disturbed men of letters?

The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait

Publisher: Norton
Length: 272 pages
Author: Blake Bailey
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-03

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.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.