Blake Bailey has now written four books about families blessed with literary talent and plagued by the ravages of alcohol. His fierce affinity for these subjects is now a little easier to understand.
The writers Richard Yates, John Cheever (my father-in-law) and Charles Jackson, who wrote what he knew in his novel The Lost Weekend, all spoke to Bailey's own turbulent background. Both he and, to a much greater extent, his older brother, Scott, walked a thin line between self-discipline and drunken disaster.
The Splendid Things We Planned is a memoir about the two brothers' interwoven fates, with Blake ever aware that Scott's could have been his own. Raised in Oklahoma with such a strong German heritage that Scott's nickname for Blake derived from the German phrase for "onion mouth," the brothers were golden boys in their early years. By high school, they were vain: Blake writes of being acutely aware of the years when Scott was the more authoritative and handsome of the two. But the younger brother had the intellectual edge and was smugly proud of that.
Scott's beauty began to fade before high school was over. As Scott began his long boozy, druggy fall from grace, it became almost too easy for Blake to assume the role of responsible guardian for his errant older sibling.
The Splendid Things We Planned takes its wistful title from a 1969 Roy Clark song, Yesterday When I Was Young. The next line: "I always built to last on weak and shifting land." Those lyrics make it a good evocation of the precariousness that ran through the Bailey brothers' youth and early adulthood, when stability was in short supply, and the danger signals grew more and more alarming.
Their parents divorced; Blake tried to align himself with his mother as Scott's behavior grew ever more shocking, yet their father seemed to favor Scott, no matter what he did. Once their father remarried, his new family could not fail to notice that Blake had become a blackout drunk, which rendered moot much of his superior attitude about Scott's transgressions.
The book brings a surprising degree of humor and frankness to describing some of the most humiliating moments in its author's life.
Blake is freed from the biographer's burden of fleshing out his story with layers of fact and detail. This is a slender book, one that relies only on memory and acknowledges memory's weakness, especially when alcoholism is involved. However painful the process of putting it together might have been, he gives it a novelist's flair. This narrative begins slowly, but it quickly picks up steam and becomes a sleek, dramatic, authentically lurid story fueled by candid fraternal rivalry. However aghast and pained he is at the mounting calamities in his brother's life, there is a part of him that not so secretly reveled in being the survivor.
The book details every painful stage of Scott's increasing strangeness, some but not all of it fueled by drugs. Blake speaks of how Scott managed to alienate all but his most worthless friends; of his first car wreck, first arrest and first obviously stoned behavior. ("All I knew was that every time he opened his mouth something strange came out, as though he were addressing us from the fog of some alien world.")
This book has, to use the title of Blake's Richard Yates book, "a tragic honesty" running through it. He is able to summon his own uncertainty about what he would become, wondering whether ambition could save him from the vagrancy and madness that eventually made Scott a danger to himself and others. He remembers each of his own literary affectations — like his Yates phase, when he "began to fancy myself a kind of knockabout intellectual — a la Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, and thus I contrived to feel superior to certain old friends who'd surrendered themselves to the rat race." He adds, "At bottom I was a failure and knew it better than anybody."
The takeaway from this vivid, tender book is that it can be as valuable for a reader to know a biographer as it is for a biographer to know his or her subject. Anyone who reads Blake Bailey's future work — and his magnum opus is to be Philip Roth's biography — will find it illuminating to know who's telling the story: an erudite, dedicated scholar who still remembers himself looking "like a baggy old cadaver crossing the set of Ozzie and Harriet" in his golden youth.