The line that opens Charles Jackson’s The Lost Weekend (1944), a minor novel but a masterpiece of addiction literature, is bracing and unforgettable: “The barometer of his emotional nature was set for a spell of riot.” That the line is not Jackson’s own—his protagonist and surrogate, Don Birnam, reads it in James Joyce’s Dubliners—tells us plenty about Jackson as author. It is a symptom of his obsessive wish to achieve literary greatness that he contrived to make the reader’s first encounter with his prose an encounter, in fact, with that of a confirmed genius. Charles Jackson spent his entire life trotting along in the dust of titans to whom he never had a prayer of catching up.
At least you can’t say he lacked taste. It’s a long way from “set for a spell of riot” to Lindsay Lohan’s confession to Oprah Winfrey that she is “addicted to chaos.” The alcoholic’s solipsism and self-justification may be a constant, but that does not mean, as Blake Bailey’s biography makes plain, that all addicts are equally tiresome. The man on display in Farther and Wilder is more fascinating and tragic than the besotted self-promoters of our time. He even had the self-respect to cast his personal nightmare as a novel, not a memoir, and to insist for a long time that it was a work of imagination.
With nothing but his bibliography to go on, one might suspect Blake Bailey of harboring an undergraduate preoccupation with boozing novelists: He has previously written biographies, each heavy on gory detail, of Richard Yates and John Cheever. But Bailey anticipates the reader’s skepticism: “Insofar as my books have an aim,” he has said, “it’s to reconcile the paradox of a highly compartmentalized personality, and ruinously alcoholic midcentury American writers seem to fill that bill nicely.” Bailey’s ability to give a biography an essentially novelistic feel means one can read happily and profitably about even a figure as trivial as Jackson.
The modern landscape is strewn with tragic figures whose flaw was to crave fame (or mere notoriety) above all else. Jackson wanted to create high art, though he frequently and masochistically questioned his own motives. Thus, in a daydream, Don Birnam thinks: “Oh to feel the power of giving such a performance, or the power of swaying others in any medium, the power of accomplishment. Would it ever be his?” But elsewhere in The Lost Weekend, the character lashes himself: “He only wanted to be The Artist, anyhow, with no thought of the meaning or content of the work which would win him such a title.”
The trouble, as anyone who has read The Lost Weekend, or seen Billy Wilder’s harrowing 1945 film adaptation knows, is that the content chose Jackson, not the other way around. The teaser “Five shocking days in the life of an alcoholic” on the lurid cover of one Signet edition could hardly have prepared readers for how hopeless a case was in store for them. Birnam’s alcoholism is so advanced that few but doctors would have seen anything like it. Indeed, Ray Milland, who in Bailey’s telling “hardly ever took a drink himself,” prepared for the role of Don Birnam in part by “spending a night, incognito, in the alcoholic ward of Bellevue.” That Jackson’s story would be a sensation, as a book or movie, was inevitable.
Of course, like a rich man who wonders whether women love him or his money, Jackson could never be sure which merits the book had succeeded on. It tortured him. Part of his appeal as an artist is that he wanted badly not to take shortcuts—unlike those memoirists of today who deliberately pique morbid curiosity and then conflate sales figures with proof of genius. Alas, Jackson’s successes and failures were often outside his control. Just as The Lost Weekend is a cautionary tale about alcoholism, Farther and Wilder is a warning to writers about the limitations and perils of the inward gaze.
Certainly Jackson had much in his past worth working out in fiction. (The Working Out, incidentally, was his proposed title for a Lost Weekend sequel.) His childhood was blackened by twin tragedies: His father abandoned the family shortly after two of Charles’s siblings died in an accident. Yet it would be a mistake to suppose that Jackson’s artistic impulses issued from a desire for therapy. He was creative, and appreciated for it, from an early age. The Lost Weekend alludes to this in the very moment when Don Birnam recalls his own father’s cruel departure: