The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait

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Overview

The renowned biographer’s unforgettable portrait of a family in ruins—his own.
Meet the Baileys: Burck, a prosperous lawyer once voted the American Legion’s “Citizen of the Year” in his tiny hometown of Vinita, Oklahoma; his wife Marlies, who longs to recapture her festive life in Greenwich Village as a pretty young German immigrant, fresh off the boat; their addled son Scott, who repeatedly crashes the family Porsche; and Blake, the younger son, trying to find a way through the...

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Overview

The renowned biographer’s unforgettable portrait of a family in ruins—his own.
Meet the Baileys: Burck, a prosperous lawyer once voted the American Legion’s “Citizen of the Year” in his tiny hometown of Vinita, Oklahoma; his wife Marlies, who longs to recapture her festive life in Greenwich Village as a pretty young German immigrant, fresh off the boat; their addled son Scott, who repeatedly crashes the family Porsche; and Blake, the younger son, trying to find a way through the storm. “You’re gonna be just like me,” a drunken Scott taunts him. “You’re gonna be worse.”
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, Blake Bailey has been hailed as “addictively readable” (New York Times) and praised for his ability to capture lives “compellingly and in harrowing detail” (Time). The Splendid Things We Planned is his darkly funny account of growing up in the shadow of an erratic and increasingly dangerous brother, an exhilarating and sometimes harrowing story that culminates in one unforgettable Christmas.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Janet Maslin
This is a slender book, one that relies only on memory and acknowledges memory's weakness, especially when alcoholism is involved. And however painful the process of putting it together might have been, [Blake] gives it a novelist's flair. This narrative begins slowly, but it quickly picks up steam and becomes a sleek, dramatic, authentically lurid story fueled by candid fraternal rivalry…The takeaway from this vivid, tender book is that it can be as valuable for a reader to know a biographer as it is for a biographer to know his or her subject. Anyone who reads Blake Bailey's future work…will find it illuminating to know who's telling the story…
The New York Times Book Review - Dave Itzkoff
Think of the opening sections of The Splendid Things We Planned, Blake Bailey's achingly honest memoir, as a kind of personality test or perhaps an obstacle course. Not every reader is going to pass, but then again, not every reader is entitled to such a fearless, deeply felt and often frightening book&#8230what lies ahead is a difficult and often remarkable tale of an unhappy family unlike any other…[Bailey] never panders for a reader's sympathy. His prose is clean and graceful without being overwrought, and he often finds unexpected places for deft turns of phrase…it is a testament to his courage that he decided to share this tale at all. It doesn't strive for any false or overreaching profundity, and yet it arrives at a certain undeniable truth about how we are capable of feeling love for people we would never choose to be around.
Publishers Weekly
11/25/2013
It seems fitting that biographer Bailey tells the story of his own life by chronicling his brother Scott’s alcoholism and drug addiction, which causes him to descend into violence and madness. Told in chronological order, starting with the marriage of his straight-laced lawyer father to his bohemian, German-immigrant mother, Bailey’s story captures the contradictions and tensions that simmer just below the surface of the family, as they try to live a normal suburban life in Oklahoma. But as Scott goes from being a self-absorbed teen to a pothead, college dropout, and junkie, the family dynamic unravels, breaking up the marriage as the author himself heads toward alcoholism, debauchery, and ennui—though not to his brother’s depths. But this is Scott’s story, and Bailey tells it wonderfully, in a tragicomic tone that slowly reveals the true depths to which his older brother has sunk. (Mar.)
Tom Bissell
“Blake Bailey is the closest thing we have to a modern-day Richard Ellmann. How unexpected, but also how utterly perfect, that one of our best literary biographers now reveals the gripping true-life novel at the core of his own experience.”
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
“Among the many remarkable aspects of Blake Bailey's unflinching memoir is the fact that his sense of humor remains, despite these harrowing experiences, so entirely intact. His powers of observation, his gift for the mot juste, and above all his brilliant and offbeat humor make this family story a deeply moving and irresistible read.”
Gregg LaGambina
“A reminder that the best books… impart a sense of shared experience, and to read them is to participate in humanity.”
Ian Crouch - newyorker.com
“[Told with] scathing honesty…grotesque and grimly funny…[Bailey's] struggle as a writer looking for truth and as a brother and son looking for catharsis gives the book an unsettling urgency…its specific story, about a family spinning out of control, naturally points to wider, shared experience, and pushes us to consider what we owe our parents, siblings, and children—and what they owe us in return.”
Kirkus Reviews
2013-12-08
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.
Brendan Driscoll - Booklist (starred)
“A haunting portrait of more than one tortured soul and a heartfelt probing of the limits of brotherly love.”
Trisha Ping - BookPage
“One of the most surprising and riveting memoirs of the season.”
Geoff Dyer
“An extraordinary memoir, written with the love and rage of a brother and son, and controlled with the skill of a master biographer.”
Dani Shapiro
“A brother’s lament, a hard-won, clear-eyed view of one family’s tortured history, The Splendid Things We Planned is everything we hope for in a modern memoir. Blake Bailey's triumph here is both personal and literary: a beautiful book, rising out of the ruins.”
Adelle Waldman
“One of the most sensitive, intelligent and affecting books I’ve read in a long time. The Splendid Things We Planned is the story of an American family, and of two sons whose lives went in very different directions. Though a memoir, it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, reminiscent of the fiction of Bailey’s former subjects Richard Yates and John Cheever in its compassion, its lack of sentimentality and the rich, detailed prose in which it is written.”
David Sedaris
“This fine and haunting memoir touches the spot where family, responsibility, and helplessness converge. It’s not a pretty place, but boy has Blake Bailey made it memorable. The Splendid Things We Planned is as forceful and revealing as any of the author’s excellent biographies, and that’s really saying something.”
Dave Itzkoff - New York Times Book Review
“Enthralling… Achingly honest… A fearless, deeply felt and often frightening book…[The Splendid Things We Planned] arrives at a certain undeniable truth about how we are capable of feeling love for people we would never choose to be around.”
Janet Maslin - New York Times
“[A] vivid, tender book [written with] humor and frankness…[and] a novelist's flair… A sleek, dramatic, authentically lurid story fueled by a candid fraternal rivalry.”
Elyse Moody - Elle
“Very entertaining [and] immensely enjoyable—but also profoundly, persuasively sad. Like Mary Karr or David Sedaris, Bailey doesn't try to manufacture an answer to the questions posed by his family's failings.”
Clark Collis - Entertainment Weekly
“Vibrantly evocative and car-crash engrossing.”
Leslie Jamison - San Francisco Chronicle
“Manages to do justice to the tedium of chronic dysfunction without becoming tedious itself…Compelling because of Bailey's emotional acuity as well as his wit, which emerges as an adaptive coping mechanism—a way to survive despair by streaking it with light.”
Kate Tuttle - Boston Globe
“Bailey maintains an almost impossible balance between stringent assessment…and a kind of unflappable empathy… The book is as clear-eyed and heartbreaking as any of his acclaimed biographies…yet every bit as compelling.”
Gregg LaGambina - The Onion A.V. Club
“Blake Bailey’s remarkable memoir…is a reminder that the best books (fiction or otherwise) impart a sense of shared experience, and to read them is to participate in humanity, not retreat from it. … He has also done for [his brother] what he did for John Cheever: He has written a person to life so that others might know him, too.”
Debra Gwartney - The Oregonian
“Splendid … often laugh-out-loud hilarious … [Bailey has] discovered an accessible and smart tragicomic tone for his family’s tale.”
The New Yorker
“Captivating… Bailey maintains a lacerating tone, and examines with the coolness of a detective the staggering things that we can do to the people we love.”
Library Journal
★ 03/01/2014
The Bailey family—Burck, a New York University-trained lawyer who's named "Citizen of the Year" in Vinita, OK; his wife, Marlies, a young German immigrant drawn to the bright lights and energy of New York in the early 1960s; and two sons, Scott and Blake—live the American dream, observes former Guggenheim Fellow, National Book Critics Circle Award winner, and Pulitzer Prize finalist Bailey (Mina Hohenberg Darden Professor, creative writing; Old Dominion Univ.; A Tragic Honesty; Cheever). Or so it seems. But Scott—handsome, impetuous, and selfish—allows his demons to take over. Physically and psychologically diminished, the ex-marine returns home for one last attempt at salvaging the remains of his chaotic and sometimes felonious life. The younger Bailey recalls those dark days, shortly before his brother's last stint in prison and his suicide in 2003 at age 43. Bailey's memoir is a more genteel, though no less accomplished, update of Harry Crews's A Childhood, with details layered in an unflinching fusillade until a poignant, maddening portrait of Scott—and the rest of the Baileys, seen through the lens of Scott's descent—takes shape. The effect of the writing and Bailey's own wrestling with time, memory, and loss lingers after the final passages. VERDICT For readers of memoir and literary nonfiction, this should make end-of-the-year lists.—Patrick A. Smith, Bainbridge Coll., GA
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393239577
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/3/2014
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 117,284
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Blake Bailey is the author of biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson, and he is at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; the winner of a National Book Critics Circle Award and the Francis Parkman Prize; and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Virginia, where he is the Mina Hohenberg Darden Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.

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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 23, 2014

    A Must Read!

    Very well written. There are too many families who go through this everyday with a dysfunctional family member and not everyone is aware of the horrifying effects on every innocent member that has to endure it.

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