cover image Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson

Familiar Spirits: A Memoir of James Merrill and David Jackson

Alison Lurie. Viking Books, $22.95 (181pp) ISBN 978-0-670-89459-8

Novelist Lurie's brief, disturbing memoir covers her four decades of acquaintance with the important American poet Merrill (1926-1995) and his longtime partner, Jackson. Lurie grew friendly with the talented couple when Merrill taught at Amherst alongside Lurie's husband in 1954-1957. Lurie and Jackson were aspiring novelists, Merrill a little-known poet. Though the group dispersed geographically, they stayed friends; Lurie visited Merrill and Jackson's remarkable house in Connecticut, where she compared their successful domestic life to her own increasingly unhappy marriage. Lurie's career as a novelist, and Merrill's fame as a poet, grew throughout the '60s, while Jackson's promising novels remained unpublished. Merrill and Jackson devoted themselves, first to Greece, where they took other lovers, and then to communication with the afterlife via a Ouija board. The Ouija experience of ""JM"" and ""DJ"" became the basis for Merrill's well-known long poem, ""The Changing Light at Sandover,"" which integrates autobiography and lyric with didactic messages from beyond. Lurie believes that Merrill and Jackson used Ouija as an escape from Jackson's creative frustrations and from their troubles as a couple, and that it told them what they wanted to hear: Lurie's saddening analyses draw on her researches for her novel about spiritualism and seances, Imaginary Friends. The last third of the memoir follows Merrill and Jackson's life in Key West in the '80s and early '90s: Merrill fell in love with a dangerously clingy younger admirer, while Jackson abandoned himself to one-night stands and then to drink. There is not yet a full biography of Merrill; that means his many fans who want to know more about his personal life have almost nowhere else to turn but here. (Feb.) Forecast: Lurie's name will guarantee review attention and, if sold alongside Knopf's edition of Merrill's work, Collected Poems, due in March, this book should enjoy respectable sales.