In the opening chapter of "Anna Karenina," Tolstoy famously wrote, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
In the modern era, the memoir of the unhappy family has come into its own. Think, for example, of Rick Bragg's "The Prince of Frogtown" or any another modern remembrance of times past in which the writer basically says, "Look what a squalid rats-nest I crawled out of, growing up surrounded by drunks, addicts, rubes, nitwits, and neurotics, among whom I was nothing special. But look at me now!"
Now in "The Splendid Things We Planned," Blake Bailey looks back on his life with a mixture of bitterness, sardonic rage and (in the end) sorrow and protestations of love. A professor of creative writing at Old Dominion University who is working on a biography of Philip Roth, and an astute, diligent biographer of John Cheever, Charles Jackson and Richard Yates - three men who were severely troubled by alcoholism and the lonely rage that accompanies it - he has now written a memoir of a family that struggled with alcohol, verbal abuse and drugs. As such, it is a work that is as heartfelt and honest as it is largely bereft of hope.
Readers are introduced to the Baileys of Oklahoma, an upper middle-class family. There is the author's father Burck, an influential attorney and political figure, along with his German-born mother Marlies, an artistic free spirit at heart. Then there is the author himself and his deeply troubled older brother, Scott.
The family lived a comfortable, if joyless, existence in several homes in suburban Oklahoma. Aimless, empty and bored, seeking to fill the hours of their days, the younger Baileys succumbed to heavy drinking, drug addiction and what the Englishwriter Cyril Connolly (quoted by the author) once termed "the fugitive distress of hedonism."
The central figure in the book is Scott, who pushed around, taunted and undercut his younger brother throughout the formative years of their lives, the 1970s and '80s. Gradually Scott slipped into all manner of self-destructive behavior, eventually selling his body on the street to pay for various mind-altering substances, graduating to heroin. As he steadily faded away from life, Marlies acted as his optimistic enabler while the industrious Burck kept the money flowing in, heedless of the way it was spent to support his increasingly dysfunctional family.
From the beginning, Burck and Marlies seemed ideal as a married couple who wanted to live a fun, well-off life, but routine domesticity and the raising of two active, independent boys during what Tom Wolfe has called "the Me Decade" of the 1970s baffled and defeated them.
This is all told in a narrative that flows steadily forward with not a dull interlude - a narrative that is well-crafted (though, for example, Bailey doesn't make clear why he refers to his parents by their first names). The reader is carried along relentlessly, watching the author's parents divorce and the family fall apart, sensing that this story is not going to end well for Scott.
The very title of this memoir is ironic, for we never learn of any splendid things planned by Scott and Blake, no shared dreams, no sense that they - Scott especially - saw the first three decades of their lives as anything other than a cul-de-sac of wasted time. Thoughtful, sensitive Blake absorbed all the experiences of his life, and it might be argued that these experiences shaped the emphases of his own written work. His unreflective brother simply drifted to destruction.
The one admirable person described in the book is Bailey's wife, Mary. Aside from her, the book hews close to the author's relationship with his brother and recounts in vivid detail what seems like every unsavory detail of the life they knew as they grew into manhood and then into early middle age. (Brief details of Bailey's own maturity and professional development appear sporadically, as touchpoints to the sad story of the Baileys of Oklahoma.) Each ugly incident was seared into the author's memory in graphic detail and is recounted for his readers' consideration.
Truly, do we really need to know that Scott once climbed to the roof of a house, lowered his britches and defecated off the peak, later asking his brother how the whole performance looked from ground level? Or that Marlies learned about Scott's death while sitting on the toilet, suffering from an explosive bout of indigestion?
It is unclear what possible purpose is served by including such details. Not that there's anything wrong with openness and honesty, but the recounting of one episode after another of misplaced vanity, lust and grossness severely undercuts the author's claims of love for his family that appear at the very end of the book. Doubtlessly there must have been love in this family, but there is little explicit trace of it in the first 253 pages of this 254-page book, aside from a short, fond recollection of playing pickup games of neighborhood football as a young boy with his brother and a few friends.
In 1949, after several years of the queue and the dole in postwar Britain, Cyril Connolly wrote, "It is closing-time in the gardens of the West and from now on an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair." Judged in this light, "The Splendid Things We Planned" is a fitting artifact of a despairing age in which character, common cause, faith and community are in severe decline but still remembered faintly like the tune of an all-but-forgotten anthem.
A Virginia native now living in the Midwest, James E. Person Jr. is a longtime reviewer and the author of critical biographies of Russell Kirk and Earl Hamner.
"THE SPLENDID THINGS WE PLANNED: A Family Portrait," Blake Bailey, Norton. $25.95. 254 pp.
Blake Bailey will discuss his memoir, and sign copies, at 7 p.m. April 10 at Prince Books, 109 E. Main St., Norfolk. 622-9223.