In musical terms, author Charles Jackson was a one-hit wonder, the literary equivalent of Right Said Fred or Sir Mix-a-Lot.
Put under the microscope, however, one-hit wonders can make a better story than superstars — huge early success followed by unending failure is potentially more dramatic than an unbroken series of triumphs. To find the great story behind a one-hit wonder, you just have to dig a little deeper — something Blake Bailey demonstrates in his fascinating new biography, Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson.
Bailey made his literary bones with exhaustive, richly detailed, best-selling biographies of luminaries Richard Yates (Revolutionary Road, The Good School) and John Cheever (The Wapshot Chronicle, Falconer, etc.) That he could make Jackson's story every bit as compelling is something of a miracle.
As Bailey tells it, Jackson began his literary life in the 1930s as an unknown and unpublished wannabe writer who was such a chronic, hopeless drunk that he couldn't finish anything he started. Throw in tuberculosis, financial instability and repressed homosexuality, and the guy was an unpromising mess. Certainly none of his friends or family thought he had the talent or work ethic to crack the big time.
But through sheer willpower, Jackson got sober all by himself for eight increasingly productive years. During that time he wrote The Lost Weekend, a thinly disguised, autobiographical novel about five harrowing days in the life of Don Birnam, a hopeless drunk with writer's block linked to hints of repressed homosexuality.
Hailed by critics as a cultural game-changer that turned drunkenness from an object of derision to one of sympathy, The Lost Weekend became a huge 1944 best-seller. Within a year it was turned into a multiple Academy Award–winning film by the great Billy Wilder and earned Jackson a Hollywood contract writing screenplays in Los Angeles, where he moved temporarily from New York. Finally, at the relatively advanced age of 40, all his dreams of becoming a major literary figure were coming true.
Intoxicated by newfound friendships with Judy Garland, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, Jackson left Hollywood for New Hampshire, where he bought a stately mansion with his film windfall — all of $35,000. With his long-suffering wife, Rhoda (who knew he was gay but stoically tried to ignore it), dutifully keeping house, he procrastinated endlessly while slowly grinding out two unsuccessful novels that ignored his agent's and publisher's pleas to quickly pen a sequel to The Lost Weekend. (Farther and Wilder takes its name from the working title of the long-anticipated sequel that Jackson never got around to finishing.)
Crushed by his inability to capitalize on his cultural moment, Jackson soon fell off the wagon and was on his way to a 20-year downward spiral of poly-substance abuse and increasingly severe health problems. It culminated with his 1968 suicide by Seconal in New York City's notorious Chelsea Hotel, where he lived alone while his wife stayed in New Hampshire and their two daughters were off at college.
With geniuses, every unearthed nugget and revelation is grist for the ultimate riddle: What made this artist great? For one-hit wonders, the riddle is bigger, but so is the payoff: Why could he never duplicate or even come close to his previous success?
With Jackson, the obvious answers are alcoholism and Seconal abuse. But Bailey also posits that he suffered from a lack of confidence, lack of major-league talent and lack of imagination. Virtually every protagonist Jackson ever created was a thinly disguised version of himself. He was incapable of imagining lives or situations that he didn't already know or hadn't personally experienced.
How Bailey came to write Jackson's story is almost as compelling as the story itself.
After finishing the Yates and Cheever bios, Bailey tells the Weekly, he was a bit burned out and looking for a lighter subject. His first idea was to write a collection of mini-profiles of promising young writers who got off track and never made their literary mark — long-forgotten names like Nathan Asch, Calvin Canfield and Jackson. But when he read the editor's preface to The Lost Weekend and learned about Jackson's pathetic end at the Chelsea Hotel, he knew he'd found his next full-length subject: "I had to get to the bottom of that," he says. "How did the author of The Lost Weekend end up like that?"
What he learned in the course of his extensive research is that Jackson's personal fame eventually was eclipsed by the greatness of The Lost Weekend film and even by the title itself, which became a part of the American pop vocabulary as shorthand for an alcoholic binge. Unfortunately, Jackson couldn't take credit for either one of those collateral successes.
"This was a rare case of a great novel being turned into an even greater film," Bailey says, "and Billy Wilder got all the credit for the film. Eventually most people forgot there was a book that came first."
And that evocative title? Bailey's research revealed that Jackson had turned in his final draft with the title The Long Weekend. Someone at the publishing house of Farrar & Rinehart simply changed two letters before publication.
In 429 riveting pages, Bailey draws a portrait of a modestly talented man, a one-hit wonder who yearned to be thought of as a literary genius. It's a complex story with a simple moral, Bailey says: "Don't get fucked up and try to write."