“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.