Blinkered by the friendship she developed with her subject over the last ten years of his life, academic biographer Carr (Dos Passos, 1984, etc.) presents a one-sided and less than reliable account of America’s supreme decadent genius.
Her narrative runs through Bowles’s long life (1910–99) at breakneck speed, virtually ignoring the 26 years after wife Jane’s death. Born in Queens, only child of a rather unserious mother and an authoritarian father he abhorred, Bowles was single-minded and almost cold-blooded about his life’s pursuit: to leave home and travel, meet as many people as he could to help him along, and become a poet and musician. He had startling early success: his poems were published in transition while still in high school; he obtained an introduction to study with Aaron Copland, who became his patron and perhaps the love of his life; and he developed important friendships with Gertrude Stein, Virgil Thomson, Orson Welles, Tennessee Williams, and numerous influential others. Supporting himself by writing incidental compositions for the theater, Bowles traveled to Morocco largely for the cheap availability of homosexual sex and hashish. In 1937 he met sheltered virgin Jane Auer, who “considered him a threat to her lesbianism” but married him to placate her mother. The couple lived and worked often in harmonious separation until her 1973 death from drug and alcohol abuse. Carr deeply mines Bowles’s childhood and early years as a spokesman for non-Western music; her account of his initial success as a novelist (The Sheltering Sky, inspired by Jane’s writing) moves blithely and is chock-full of encounters with famous musicians and belletrists. But she has enmeshed herself so exclusively in her subject that she fails to offer a sense of the compelling currents of the day—modernism, surrealism, existentialism, all important to Bowles—except as dates and names. Consequently, this is useful only to those who already have a working knowledge of his life.
Nonanalytical and nonjudgmental, very much the way Bowles would have wanted it.