Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson

Blake Bailey, Author
Blake Bailey. Knopf, $30 (496p) ISBN 978-0-307-27358-1
Reviewed on: 01/28/2013
Release date: 03/19/2013
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A once-celebrated American novelist wrestles with the Big Three writerly adversaries—substance abuse, repressed homosexuality, and social conformity—in this rich, probing biography. National Book Critics Circle Award–winner Bailey (Cheever: A Life) explores the interplay between Jackson’s lurid fiction—his autobiographical 1945 best seller The Lost Weekend became a classic of alcoholic lit and was adapted into a hit movie of the same name by Billy Wilder; later works depicted child murder, nymphomania, and then-scandalous homosexual yearnings—and his prodigal life, a whirlwind of booze-and-pills benders, overdoses, DUIs, hospitalizations, and perpetual debt that caused anguish for his wife, friends, and publishers. The author shrewdly analyzes Jackson’s sometimes crippling, sometimes fertile contradictions: his narcissistic swerving between grandiosity and self-loathing; his ambition to be a respectable paterfamilias while pursuing furtive gay trysts; his love-hate relationship with the small-town normalcy of his boyhood, which he mined for seamy material; his dependence on drugs that helped him overcome epic writer’s block but warped his prose. Bailey offers clear-eyed, tart-tongued interpretations of Jackson’s uneven oeuvre, setting them in a thorough, well-paced, entertaining narrative that features movie stars and intellectuals, evocative scenes of mid-20th-century literary life, and relationships that unfold with novelistic complexity. The result is another compelling portrait of a conflicted writer whose genius emerges in dubious battle with his demons. Photos. Agent: David McCormick, McCormick & Williams. (Mar.)
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