Farther and Wilder by Blake Bailey
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“A great American biography. Brilliant and gripping. Mr. Bailey has made an author come alive in a way that is truly novelistic, has made him submit to becoming a character in a story. That Blake Bailey should come along 45 years later and grant fame to Charles Jackson is a kind of miracle, one that we can all be grateful for.”—Adam Kirsch, Wall Street Journal
Charles Jackson’s novel The Lost Weekend—the story of five disastrous days in the life of alcoholic Don Birnam—was published in 1944 to triumphant success. Within five years it had sold nearly half a million copies in various editions, and was added to the prestigious Modern Library. The actor Ray Milland, who would win an Oscar for his portrayal of Birnam, was coached in the ways of drunkenness by the novel’s author—a balding, impeccably groomed middle-aged man who had been sober since 1936 and had no intention of going down in history as the author of a thinly veiled autobiography about a crypto-homosexual drunk. But The Lost Weekend was all but entirely based on Jackson’s own experiences, and Jackson’s valiant struggles fill these pages. He and his handsome gay brother, Fred (“Boom”), grew up in the scandal-plagued village of Newark, New York, and later lived in Europe as TB patients, consorting with aristocratic café society. Jackson went on to work in radio and Hollywood, was published widely, lived in the Hotel Chelsea in New York City, and knew everyone from Judy Garland and Billy Wilder to Thomas Mann and Mary McCarthy. A doting family man with two daughters, Jackson was often industrious and sober; he even became a celebrated spokesman for Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet he ultimately found it nearly impossible to write without the stimulus of pills or alcohol and felt his devotion to his work was worth the price. Rich with incident and character, Farther & Wilder is the moving story of an artist whose commitment to bringing forbidden subjects into the popular discourse was far ahead of his time.
Praise for Farther and Wilder
“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.”––Publishers Weekly
“Author of acclaimed biographies of John Cheever and Richard Yates, Bailey makes a rather surprising case for the resurrection of this deeply prescient and problematic novelist, who broke open taboos about alcoholics and homosexuals well before it was cool and championed F. Scott Fitzgerald when he was in the process of being remaindered. . . Bailey urges a revisiting of the work of this fascinating novelist of keen psychological depth. Eloquent, poignant portrait of the artist as outsider and misfit.”––Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Blake Bailey is the author of Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. His other books include A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Cheever: A Life, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, and finalist for the Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He edited a two-volume edition of Cheever’s work for The Library of America, and in 2010 received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in Virginia with his wife and daughter.