If the literary biographer Blake Bailey never touched a drop of alcohol, you’d have to regard him with the same understanding you’d allot the epidemiologist who won’t shake hands: in both cases, acute, unrelenting examination of human destruction explains the wariness. In Bailey’s case, at least there is the sometimes protean creativity of his subjects to offset the quotidian agony. He has lovingly, if unflinchingly, chronicled the lives of John Cheever, Richard Yates and most recently the lesser known writer Charles Jackson (“The Lost Weekend”). These men all drank like Ulysses Grant, and sold almost as many books. (Grant’s memoir, published by the always enterprising Mark Twain, was a runaway best-seller.) If you want to know what it was like to be or be around these influential authors during their glorious flights (“it is a night where kings in golden suits ride elephants over mountains,” wrote Cheever in one story) and their crushing plummets, Bailey is your man. He’s fair-minded, exhaustively curious, and acquainted with both creativity and the night.
Bailey’s great eyes and athletic stance in the literary batter’s box will have to contend with a few new pitches in his next game. Philip Roth is on the mound and the biographer will encounter an abundant repertoire (sliders, knuckleballs) that his previous subjects didn’t possess. Bailey will nevertheless find his way around the bases. Besides, he won’t have to spend quite as much time at cocktail hour. (Having lost his home and most of his possessions in Hurricane Katrina, perhaps Bailey just wanted a break from devastation.) He may end up missing the little breaks though: Roth has written more books than Bailey’s other subjects combined. For his investigations on our behalf, Bailey has been well-honored: a Guggenheim, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Francis Parkman Prize, etc. Little doubt he’ll win a prize for his work on Roth too. But readers stand to gain the most, which is the beauty of Bailey’s biographies. By the end of the next one, readers may even find out where Nathan Zuckerman ends and Philip Roth begins.