The novelist Charles Jackson may not be as well known as the subjects of Blake Bailey’s previous biographies, Richard Yates and John Cheever—the latter book, Cheever: A Life, won Mr. Bailey the National Book Critics Circle Award—but he is no less fascinating. In Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson, Mr. Bailey portrays his life with the same dogged attention to detail, literary panache and brilliant storytelling that he brought to those other subjects.
Jackson is known, to the extent that he is known, as the author of the 1944 novel The Lost Weekend (his debut), which was in short order made into a movie by Billy Wilder that swept the 1946 Oscars. The book, now reissued (along with Jackson’s 1950 volume of short stories, The Sunnier Side) with an introduction by Mr. Bailey, describes a bender of epic proportions. Its protagonist, Don Birnam, an alcoholic at rock bottom, was a thinly veiled portrait of Jackson himself, and he would continue to use his own biography in his work. “He saw himself as an American everyman,” Mary McCarthy wrote of a character she based on Jackson, a depiction that Mr. Bailey draws on throughout the book. “He felt that if he could tell the whole truth about himself, he would tell the whole truth about any ordinary American. This, in fact, he conceived to be his duty as a writer.”
Though he grew up in an ordinary enough town—Newark, N.Y., outside of Rochester, which he would fictionalize as Arcadia—Jackson was hardly an ordinary American. In his life, he rubbed shoulders with Thomas Mann, Judy Garland and the Gershwins. He partied with publisher Roger Straus. He received fan letters for his writing, and for his honest approach to alcoholism. (He would, however, always wish there were more of the former.) He experienced, to a wrenching degree, the curse of the successful first novel—he never could match his. That he was seduced by Hollywood, a common affliction of postwar fiction writers, didn’t help matters.
But his real problems ran deeper. Until the end, he fought a mainly losing battle with alcoholism and drug addiction, and he struggled to come to terms with his homosexuality. (His younger brother, meanwhile, was openly gay—or as openly as one could be at the time.) He was married, and was a doting father to his two girls. He died, after a suicide attempt, from a Seconal overdose in 1968 in the Chelsea Hotel, where he was living with a young Czech immigrant named Stanley. Mr. Bailey’s triumph is in fleshing out both Jackson’s literary legacy and the man himself. “In many ways Charlie was, and would forever be, the kindest and most approachable of men,” he writes, “while at the same time he clung like grim death to his fraying chunk of fame.”