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The Sunday Conversation: Blake Bailey rediscovers ‘Lost Weekend’ author

American writer and biographer Blake Bailey at Hotel Palomar in Los Angeles.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

In his new biography, “Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson,” Blake Bailey explores the tormented life of the author of “The Lost Weekend” — the once-celebrated 1944 novel that led to the Oscar-winning film — and his plunge into literary obscurity. The Portsmouth, Va.-based biographer has also written extensive books about John Cheever, winning a National Book Critics Circle Award, and of Richard Yates, for which Bailey was a finalist for the honor.

You’ve called yourself “a chronicler of middle-class chroniclers.” What attracts you to them?

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I myself am consummately middle class. We grew up in upper-middle-class suburbs in Oklahoma City, and that’s very much the same ethos as what Richard Yates and John Cheever wrote about. And my father is from a little town called Vinita, Okla., which I would like to say is the Oklahoman equivalent of Charles Jackson’s hometown, Arcadia, in upstate New York — both of them idyllic on the outside and a little sinister under the surface.

So what prompted you to write about Charles Jackson?

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I’m a huge fan of “The Lost Weekend.” I have this dog-eared copy of the 1963 Time Reading Program edition, which was a series of contemporary classics reprinted as a quality paperback. Anyway, after Cheever, I was really fried, because it was a lot of work, and I wanted to do a less ambitious book. I was going to do a small book of profiles of literary failures — writers who regardless of talent or how prolific they were never amounted to that much. And Charlie was going to be one of those. Because even though he wrote what many literary people regard as a classic, he’s totally forgotten.

I reread the editor’s preface ... to that 1963 edition I had, and it concludes on a happy note. It says Charles Jackson once denied that he was the model for Don Birnam, the alcoholic in “The Lost Weekend.” Many hospitalizations later, he comes clean, and he is now the chairman of the New Brunswick, N. J., Alcoholics Anonymous chapter, and the doting father of two daughters. I thought, “Wow, a redemptive fable.” And I Googled him and found out he died of an overdose at the Chelsea Hotel in 1968, living with a man named Stanley. That’s quite a reversal of fortune. I just thought, “I’ve got to get to the bottom of this.”

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Charlie’s work interests me. I think it needs to be rediscovered and he as a human being is, believe me, infinitely interesting.

Why does “The Lost Weekend” need to be rediscovered and how do you think the novel, which is largely forgotten, compares to the movie, which is not?

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It is a rare instance of a great movie made from a great book. But it’s apples and oranges. If you read the book, it is necessarily far more interior than the movie, and it is the inner landscape of an addict. It remains the definitive portrait of an addict in American literature. Charlie’s constant protesting refrain throughout his adult life was, “I can’t get outside of myself.” The triumph of the novel is that Jackson manages to transcend the narcissism and see it objectively and dramatize it.

When that came out he became one of the most celebrated novelists of the time. How did he go from that to being largely obscure in 2013?

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There are basically two reasons: One is that the movie, which seemed like a blessing at the time, turned out to be anything but, where Charlie was concerned. Because it was such a worldwide phenomenon — it swept the Oscars — that it ended up supplanting the novel as a cultural artifact. People don’t know the novel even existed ... and they forget the novel itself was an incredible hit, commercially and critically.

The second reason is that Charlie freaked out. He had been sober for eight years. “The Lost Weekend” is the only novel he wrote sober. He was from this little town where he and his brother Fred were the town sissies, and they were roundly bullied as such. And he could never get past this idea that he was a misfit from the sticks. How had he managed to write this world-acclaimed masterpiece, and how was he going to do it again?

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The way he found to keep writing was to take Seconal, and he became a hopeless Seconal addict. The upside was he was quite prolific. While taking Seconal, he wrote in 1946, two years after “The Lost Weekend,” “The Fall of Valor,” which is the first mainstream American novel about homosexuality. It’s two years in advance of Gore Vidal’s “The City and the Pillar.” And he wrote a wonderful short-story collection. Because he wrote everything stoned out of his gourd, it’s obviously not of the same quality as “The Lost Weekend.”

Seconal is a barbiturate. Was it because of his bipolar biochemistry that it stimulated him instead of sedating him?

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Yes. Charlie’s favorite dry-out hospital was Mary Hitchcock in Hanover, [N.H.], because he lived just up the Connecticut River from there. And there was a saintly, long-suffering doctor named Sven Gundersen, and I found a note in Charlie’s records written by Sven Gundersen in a puzzled tone. It said, “Mr. Jackson is addicted to Seconal, a tranquilizer, but it seems to have the opposite effect on him.” That has since become known as a phenomenon among bipolar people. .

Were there other things that fueled his addictions?

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One of the main themes of my book is how hard it was to be a closeted bisexual middle-class man at midcentury. The whole psychoanalytical establishment in America at midcentury was geared to make people with homosexual proclivities feel like monsters, moral degenerates. Having these needs, which conflicted so much with his desire to be a good family man, made him despise himself.

Why was he so committed to writing about forbidden subjects, when Hollywood, which he courted, shrank from them after “The Lost Weekend”?

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Charlie rather hubristically thought that because “The Lost Weekend” had been such a hit as a novel and as a movie that he could get away with just about anything. The only thing that he could not get away with was writing about homosexuality. But he did get some good movie money for his book about a child murderer, “The Outer Edges” (although it was not produced). So that shows you that there was only one inviolable taboo, and that was homosexuality.

Why did he write about those things? Because there was a strong defiant streak in Charlie. He liked nothing better than to get fan mail from his neighbors in Arcadia. On the other hand, he liked nothing better than to expose their various flaws and indecencies in his often very thinly veiled fiction. He bristled against his rejection as an addict, as a closeted bisexual, as a misfit in society by exploiting those very themes and trying to force them to become part of the public discourse. And he did manage to completely change, not just America’s perception of alcoholism and addiction, but the world’s perception of it.

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You’re currently working on Philip Roth’s authorized biography. How did that come about and where does it stand?

It stands pretty much at the beginning. I’ve been working on it for less than a year, and Philip, as our greatest living American writer, is an enormous subject. It’s going to take a lot of time.

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I had corresponded a little bit with Philip when I was working on my Cheever book, because those two were friends and they saw a lot of each other at the Yaddo art colony. I had found out he was no longer communicating with my predecessor. I was between projects and I wrote him a letter. He said he’d be interested in meeting me. He interviewed me for about three hours in his apartment, and it was pretty grueling. His first question was, “Why should a gentile from Oklahoma write my biography?” To which I responded, “I’m not a bisexual alcoholic with an ancient Puritan lineage either, but I wrote a biography of John Cheever.”

calendar@latimes.com


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