Oklahoma native Blake Bailey is best known as a literary biographer. His past books have been exhaustive but readable tomes about John Cheever, Richard Yates and Charles Jackson.
Currently – and quite famously – he is working on a book about Philip Roth, who personally selected Bailey as his official biographer. His new memoir, “The Splendid Things We Planned,” was released last week.
The book is memorable and absorbing, in part because Bailey, like most biographers, previously was rewarded for his scholarship but didn’t have a well-known public identity. In breaking down that wall, Bailey reveals a complicated family history and an uncompromising picture of himself, his relatives and Oklahoma.
The book, which took years to write, centers on the relationship between Bailey and his older brother Scott.
“One of the reasons it took me so long is because I was not inclined to write about myself so much in the early going,” Bailey said in a phone interview from his Virginia home. “It was almost entirely about Scott. The more I thought about it the more it seemed this was a story about how two brothers who had very similar personalities took very different paths.”
The book, Bailey said, should appeal to “anyone who has loved a family member and been unable to help them.”
Scott suffered from drug, alcohol and possible mental problems. Bailey was pulled toward some of the same vices and to a shiftless, undirected lifestyle. But while the older brother’s situation became increasingly luckless and catastrophic, Bailey happened upon a better way, inspired by good literature and a growing contempt for his sibling. The book seems like something of an apology, a way for Bailey to redeem himself and his family, including those from whom he remains estranged, for not being able to help Scott.
Blake Bailey will read from and sign copies of “The Splendid Things We Planned” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday at Full Circle Bookstore, 50 Penn Place.