An award-winning biographer reveals his troubled past.
National Book Critics Circle Award winner Bailey (Creative Writing/Old Dominion Univ.; Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson, 2013, etc.) justifies his attraction to alcoholic subjects (John Cheever, Richard Yates, Charles Jackson) in this bleak, repetitious memoir. Bailey’s father was Oklahoma’s assistant attorney general, his mother, a hard drinker trying to revive, in the Midwest, her bohemian Greenwich Village youth. Bailey and his older brother, Scott, became heavy drinkers in high school, even before their parents divorced, an event that disrupted an already strained family. Scott’s problems, though, went beyond drunkenness: At one point, a psychiatrist diagnosed him as a paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis that Bailey rejects—though he offers no other explanation for his brother’s erratic behavior, grandiose riffs, addictions, violence and ultimate suicide. Bailey chronicles Scott’s descent, but also notes that he, too, was an alcoholic. Scott, however, supplemented alcohol with various other drugs, including heroin. Their frustrated parents sometimes lashed out angrily, sometimes coddled their troubled sons. “Scott’s not as bad as you think. It’s not all black and white,” his mother told Bailey after Scott threatened to kill her. “There’s a little gray!” Some of Scott’s escapades seem like plots from a Cheever story: Scott “liked being in other people’s houses,” sneaking in during the night and staying for hours; in summer, he would “skulk around the suburbs,” bolting into family barbecues, stabbing meat and running off with it. The title of this memoir comes from a song Scott liked, Roy Clark’s 1969 “Yesterday When I was Young”: “…The thousand dreams I dreamed, the splendid things I planned/ I always built to last on weak and shifting sand.”
Bailey gives no evidence of his or his brother’s splendid plans, only decades of depression, isolation and insidious self-absorption.