Wednesday, January 17, 2018
Books

Review: Biographer's memoir tells of family's tragic loss to addiction

As a teacher many years ago, I had a nonempirical, subjective and personal theory about children. I saw their potential as an exaggerated bell curve. In the great middle were those whose circumstances left them wide open for success or failure. At each end was a small percentage. On one end, I believed, were those who, whatever horrors they endured, would manage to succeed. On the other were those who, no matter what was given to them or done for them, would still be lost.

It's a lame proposition but I remembered it as I read The Splendid Things We Planned by Blake Bailey. It's a memoir of his privileged, affluent family: himself, mother Marlies, father Burck and older brother Scott. The narrative is framed around Scott's descent, beginning as a young teenager, into drug and alcohol addiction, the attendant sordid life and his parents' heroic, decades-long and ultimately futile struggle to save him. The effort causes them and Blake years of misery as a family even after Scott's suicide, during the last of numerous incarcerations, in his early 40s.

The book is beautifully written and painful to read as story after sad story piles up. The weight of them is remorseless. Bailey spares no one and is especially eloquent in recounting his weariness at dealing with Scott and a subtle, escalating cruelty toward his brother even as his own life begins a parallel downward spiral. Though he is more clear-eyed than his parents about Scott's self-destructiveness and delusions, he can never irrevocably let go. After one of many unpleasant encounters between the brothers that begins with Scott's verbal abuse and ends with his sobbing, Blake writes, "I couldn't bear it. Even now I can't bear it."

Splendid Things isn't a whining confessional by a one-note writer. Bailey, 40, is an esteemed, award-winning literary biographer, having penned books about Richard Yates, Charles Jackson and John Cheever. He is working on the authorized biography of Philip Roth. It may or may not be relevant that his first three subjects had substance abuse issues and messy lives that he, as a writer, bound into a kind of order. But that career happened after Scott's death. During his recounting of his early morass, we get only a glimpse of a possible second act for Blake's life near the end of Scott's, when he meets and marries a woman who makes him want to be a better person. Things had gotten so bad with Scott that Blake never introduces them to each other.

Bailey writes that he began the book before his brother's death and it took him 11 years to complete it. It's interesting to read it in the context of his life, to see him as a failure. It was a story he had to tell, and he honored it with all his gifts. I pondered, though, whether, having written it, he considered just tucking it into a drawer. But a writer writes to be read and, at a deeper level, to be known and understood, especially by himself.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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