A quick-read biographical guide to literature’s most notorious wastrels, scoundrels and rebels, from the Marquis de Sade to James Frey.
Shaffer (Great Philosophers Who Failed at Love, 2011) poses the initial question that gives this historical guide to authorial self-destruction its impetus: Why are popular writers today so dull and uncontroversial compared to the literary lions of the past? Though light on hard analysis, this compendium of the creative ways in which history’s most lauded wordsmiths poisoned themselves is enjoyable enough. Shaffer achieves user-friendliness by reducing each of these literary masters to a sum of their worst qualities: Most notable are de Sade’s twisted promiscuity, Lord Byron’s freewheeling pansexuality and the absinthe-fueled jailbird misadventures of decadent poet Paul Verlaine. Shaffer provides a wide historical reach, as the opium-addled 18th-century romantics and diversely corrupted 19th-century English decadents give way to the 20th century’s melancholic suicidal alcoholics: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway. Shaffer also treats the Beats, New Journalists and Merry Pranksters of the 1950s and 1960s, who mixed in LSD, pot and heroin with the good old-fashioned alcoholism of their forebears. Schaffer’s book loses its kick, however, when spotlighting the last three decades of relatively lame literary roguery: After being regaled with, for example, Lord Byron’s life of “bling, booze, and groupie sex” and his dramatic death on a Greek battlefield, readers may not be impressed by Jay McInerney’s penny-ante coke habits. Further, there’s no speculation as to why, in an uncensored 21st-century culture where seemingly anything goes, most prominent writers now lead drearily sober lives.
Entertaining and well-researched but facile pop history.