Blake Bailey emerged in 2003 as a serious biographer of 20th-century American authors with his account of Richard Yates’ life, “A Tragic Honesty.” He followed with a better work, “Cheever: A Life,” six years later.
His third biography, “Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson,” his account of the struggles of the author of “Lost Weekend,” was less compelling, mainly because Jackson was not a very interesting fellow. His battles with drugs and alcohol, while sad, were tiresome.
Cheever and Jackson were alcoholic bisexuals, much like Bailey’s older brother, Scott. With the arrival of this memoir, “The Splendid Things We Planned,” it becomes clear that Blake Bailey has had lots of experience with people in those circumstances.
Scott Bailey killed himself in jail at 43 after a wasted life. Despite a stint in the U.S. Marines, he failed at pretty much everything except drinking, taking drugs and sponging off his mother after his frustrated father gave up.
Blake managed to follow a more conventional path, despite a bizarre childhood under mismatched parents in Oklahoma, where his father was a successful attorney and his mother, a German immigrant, spent drunken afternoons with a motley collection of younger people she met while studying for a college degree.
It was an oddly bohemian life in conservative Oklahoma as the boys drank and smoked pot as mom looked on and dad stayed at the office. The marriage fell apart and so did Scott’s life after high school. His plunge down a mine shaft of irresponsibility and dissipation was interrupted occasionally by his family, but his brother indicates that Scott’s problems were more organic than behavioral, therefore untreatable.
Blake Bailey makes no apologies for his own messy behavior, a confused path also marked with booze and drugs that led to firings, lousy apartments and car wrecks. There were long stretches of estrangement from Scott while Blake managed to pull himself back from the cliff, helped by a loving relationship with the woman he would marry. His growth as an important literary biographer, though, is not mentioned.
But “The Splendid Things We Planned” is about Blake’s brother and, to a lesser extent, his parents, not the author, which is too bad. Blake is a more interesting character than his family, and has contributed much to the understanding of lives and works of major writers.
Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.