Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed there were no second acts in American life. Do posthumous ones count? If they didn’t, Fitzgerald himself would still be forgotten, his work being almost completely out of print at his death in 1940. Charles Jackson has been forgotten, if contemporary readers knew him in the first place. Even his most famous work, the 1944 novel The Lost Weekend, is better known as the film Billy Wilder made the following year. I don’t know that anything would have changed if the appearance of Blake Bailey’s new Jackson biography, Farther & Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson, hadn’t prompted Vintage books to accompany its release with new editions of The Lost Weekend and a slightly reordered version of Jackson’s 1950 collection, The Sunnier Side and Other Stories. But next to a rediscovery like this, the state of contemporary fiction doesn’t seem much worth caring about.

Bailey, in his acknowledgments, claims that Jackson was an opportunity to examine why, in some writers, talent isn’t enough: some fade into oblivion, while others with problems similar to Jackson’s (like his previous subjects, John Cheever and Richard Yates) maintain visibility and reputation. The Lost Weekend made Jackson famous, yet by the mid-‘50s he was struggling to finish manuscripts, eking out a living writing scripts for television dramas, and, at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, vetting others for their appeal to suburban viewers. All the while Jackson was relapsing into alcoholism and dealing with his partially closeted homosexuality (known to his wife and, when they became older, his two daughters). Jackson had a last bestseller in 1967, A Second-Hand Life, and the following year took a fatal overdose of Seconal in his apartment at the Chelsea Hotel. 

Bailey, scrupulous and sympathetic to his subject, explains why Jackson believed he became alcoholic and gay, and the reasons, having to do with his father abandoning the family when Jackson was young and his relationship with his mother, are of an easy Freudian approach that luckily is not to be found in the fiction. The reality of The Lost Weekend is so strong that any cause offered for the torments of its protagonist can only seem a reduction. 

Almost seventy years after its initial publication, there’s nothing to match The Lost Weekend as a merciless and compassionate explication of the drunk’s psyche. (For all the reverence in which Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano is held, the book is fatally weighed down by its devotion to a mythology that is both subconscious and schematic, and makes it nearly impossible to read.) The book takes place over a long weekend, during which Don Birnam is to go with his devoted brother to the family’s country retreat. Don ducks out and the next days are measured in hours, sometimes minutes. How long till the bars or the liquor stores open? What streets can Don walk down and not encounter merchants he’s cadged money from? Jackson is writing in a strain of American realism — the descriptions of Manhattan blocks in the ‘50s and pawnshop windows on 2nd Avenue have the exactitude you find in Wharton or John O’Hara — that, as Don’s seams come apart, approaches the hard-boiled and finally the hallucinatory. The mundane is raised to the level of the totemic as Don measures both the money he has left to see him through the weekend and the level of booze in his pint. It’s a book in which small acts, cleaning up, leaving the house, are assayed as if scaling Everest. It may give some idea of the book’s fearsome power that whenever I put it down I hesitated to pick it back up, but when I did, I felt in the grip of something I couldn’t get out of — for pages and pages at a time.

The title The Sunnier Side is ironic in a way we have forgotten irony can be, tinged with bitterness and regret instead of just smarmy and superior. The stories are set in Arcadia, the central New York township which contained Jackson’s hometown of Newark. Writers — Capote, Didion, Janet Malcolm, to name a few — are given to making self-justifying statements about how writers inevitably betray. I’ve never read anything that so relentlessly ties that betrayal to the almost childish need to win approval. Jackson returned to Arcadia throughout his life, eager to be acclaimed. When he died not one of his books was in the local library. It’s not hard to understand that neglect. Bailey’s biography reveals that the stories were transmutations of real scandals, like the gifted local musician who, known but not acknowledged, molests the town’s boys, as he did Jackson and his brother. “Palm Sunday,” a brilliant story in a collection full of them, is a remarkable exposition of a young man’s confusion and guilt — even excitement — at how vivid, if slightly ridiculous the experience is to the grown man.

Yet it’s the title story that summarizes the collection’s conflicting impulses. It begins with a letter to Jackson (based on an actual letter he received) from a resident of his hometown, congratulating him on a story he published for being so free of dirt and neuroses. The rest of the story takes the form of Jackson’s response, in which he spells out the fates of this woman’s three girlhood friends, the scandals that surrounded them, none of them the things good decent people, like his correspondent, wish to hear about.

All of Jackson’s characters were recognizable to Arcadia residents as real people, especially to the woman whose letter inspired the story. And there is an almost childish urge to cruelty in the story, an impulse to play the part of the truth teller.  But there is also compassion. Taken together, The Sunnier Side reveals not a literary Grace Metalious but something closer to the David Lynch of Blue Velvet. But like Lynch, Jackson is not saying small-town life is a lie. The beauty and peace of it exists side by side with the sordidness, and neither negates the other. Jackson owns up fully to the warring impulses of the writer: the urge to betray, and the fond look back.