“The Splendid Things We Planned” by Blake Bailey (W.W. Norton & Co., 272 pages, in stores)
Biography and memoir are rather different animals. The first is elegant and graceful, a bashful deer, perhaps, with such clean lines it might have been developed by a team of engineers. The second is clunkier and misshapen, like a shar-pei dog wrapped loosely in its own skin.
Biography is, in a way, taxonomy. Biographical authors must work with documentary evidence — letters, books, home movies, audio recordings, etc. — and often with an existing canon of similar works about the same subject. They’re in the business of facts.
Memoirists rely on unaudited, less reliable material, chiefly their own imperfect memories.
Transitioning between the two disciplines appears difficult at best, but Oklahoma native Blake Bailey — an internationally acclaimed biographer — makes it seem effortless. (“Seem” being the operative word; Bailey’s memoir was 11 years in the writing.)
“The Splendid Things We Planned,” released last week, is Bailey’s account of growing up in an affluent and unhappy family that revolved around his older brother, Scott, a promising and charismatic youth charging headlong into self-destruction. The book spans decades and several Oklahoma locations from Vinita to Deer Creek and from Nichols Hills mansions to downtown Oklahoma City flop houses.
Bailey was born to Burck Bailey, a successful attorney, and Marlies Bailey, a German bon vivant who surrounded herself with interesting people, including famous actors and an ever-changing cast of men, most openly gay. The differences between Burck, whose resolute focus on work allowed him to bootstrap his way to the top, and Marlies initially drew them together but almost inevitably pulled them apart — but not until they’d produced and mostly raised their two boys, Scott and Blake.
Scott always was unusual, keeping his things pristine and his bed so tidy that he chose to sleep on the floor rather than sully it. He and Blake were competitive about odd things, such as which was more handsome, although puberty brought them both severe acne that, in Scott’s case, at least, lingered for many years. The real problems began when Scott took up drinking, drugs and driving, starting a lifelong pattern of destroying relationships and automobiles with equal regularity.
Even so, Scott made “sincere” efforts to clean himself up, and his religious faith was abiding, Blake said. Scott’s greatest successes may have come during the several years he spent in the highly structured environment of the military. He was honorably discharged from the Marines at age 32 with the rank of lance corporal and made his way from Okinawa back to Oklahoma, where he would suffer probably the worst period of his life.
The memoir is not a pleasant read, but it is a compelling one that leads to a poignant and powerful climax. To say much more about the narrative would spoil it for you. But it is intriguing that Blake, the truthful biographer, applies a subjective truth to his own family. No one comes off as particularly likeable, especially Blake himself, and the life he recalls is heavy with pettiness and peculiarity but light on love.
As the literary Scott descends into madness — he is, at one point, diagnosed as schizophrenic, although Blake casts that aside in one or two sentences — he becomes a lively dervish of a character; everyone around him is lost in his shadow. Through much of the book, though, Scott is gone. This is where the difference between biography and memoir looms largest.
The book’s focus, Blake said, originally was meant to be Scott. As he labored to write it, at the same time constructing the literary biographies that have made him famous, Blake realized that the story was as much about him as it was his brother. If there is anything disappointing about the memoir, it’s that Blake portrays himself as a diffident, unmotivated character who would’ve been right at home in “Less Than Zero.” During these long passages, when Blake and Scott are separated by geography or jail walls, and to an extent in their late interactions, Blake comes across as maddeningly passive, content to watch things play out rather than actively engage.
Overall, however, “The Splendid Things We Planned” is an extraordinary read for at least two reasons: Blake is a masterly writer with exquisite turns of phrase, and Scott is a strange but oddly luminous character who will stick with you long after the book’s end.