After having written biographies of esteemed writers Richard Yates and John Cheever, Blake Bailey has taken on a less recognizable subject, the writer Charles Jackson. This is hardly a book the world was waiting for. Jackson is known, if at all, only for having written The Lost Weekend. As opposed to Cheever, who achieved success and canonization despite being a hopeless alcoholic for most of his life, Jackson struggled not only with drinking but writing. He had no major success beyond The Lost Weekend, and much of his work is unpublished. Bailey’s book takes its title from the first section of Jackson’s autobiographical magnum opus, which remained unfinished when Jackson died of an overdose of seconal at the Hotel Chelsea in 1968.
One of the most poignant aspects of Farther & Wilder is the feeling of what could have been. What if Jackson had been able to beat his substance abuse problems? What if Jackson, a closeted homosexual, had been born into more tolerant times? What if he had found his niche? Maybe writing novels wasn’t Jackson’s calling at all. One of the best chapters of the book is the one in which Jackson is writing soap operas for the radio, doing a great job. As Bailey puts it, “the challenge…was to invert the usual rules of good writing (telling details, subtle ellipses) via a kind of engaging prolixity.” Jackson proved good at this, consistently turning in excellent work. “I kept two people on a raft in the middle of a lake for five weeks once,” he bragged, “just talking to each other!” What if Jackson was meant to be a writer for the radio?
He showed promise, published well received stories, and eventually wrote The Lost Weekend, which was turned into a successful film by Billy Wilder, who read the book on a cross-country train trip. Bailey is good on the details of how Jackson was earning a living and starting a family and had to steal precious time away from his other responsibilities to pursue his real passion. But even better is the stuff on the life of the finished book, Jackson’s dealings with publishers, and the book’s move to the silver screen.
Jackson mostly floundered after that, working with publishers, getting advances for books that were never written, until being told at lunch one day that he was being cut loose. The Lost Weekend would forever be his major, perhaps only, accomplishment. Bailey sums this up in an anecdote about the author convalescing one day on the lawn of a hospital, doing the crossword. The clue was “Charles Jackson novel.” There was only one answer, no possibility of another. No one called that day to let him know they noticed.