Blake Bailey’s memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned, will be published by W. W. Norton & Company in March. We suspect it is the book he has been writing for three decades. Just as the subjects of his award-winning biographies – Richard Yates, John Cheever and Charles Jackson – were always writing about themselves, we’re pretty sure that in telling their stories he was also telling his own. Now the veil is off: behold!
The author, left, and his brother Scott, circa 1994
When my older brother, Scott, got out of rehab that fall, my father, Burck, decided to give him another chance, this time on the condition that he see a psychiatrist of Burck’s choosing. Scott consented. The psychiatrist was a man of some renown in Oklahoma City, a pudgy-faced Frans Hals figure named Dr. Hauber, who used to have giggly chats in German with my mother.
Dr. Hauber told my father that Scott was under the impression he’d been cruelly beaten as a child. Burck, I suppose, endeavoured to disabuse the man, and ultimately Dr. Hauber declared – wrongly, I think – that Scott was a paranoid schizophrenic. Dr. Hauber’s verdict, along with certain other events, helped validate my father’s previous opinion that Scott was hopeless, and by the following summer he was back in the outer darkness again.
“When a child is young,” Burck explained one night (perhaps he was relating Dr. Hauber’s analogy), “you can catch him if he falls. Then he gets a little older and falls from a higher place. Maybe you can still catch him. But finally he’s a full-grown adult and falls off the top of a building – then you have to decide: either get out of the way or be crushed.”
I thought of Scott dangling from the flagpole at the top of 50 Penn Place, the highest building in our upscale part of the city, and no wonder he seemed unimpressed by my high jinks at Tulane. For him there were no fraternity mixers, no larky days at the Bali Hai Club on Lake Pontchartrain. Though his apartment was tidier than mine, Scott’s life belonged to a different, far grimmer plane of reality, as I was reminded during a summer lunch at that restaurant where he still worked, though demoted to a busboy. It was our first meeting in almost a year; my mother had insisted I see Scott and pave the way, if possible, to reconciliation between him and Burck. Also I confess to a certain morbid curiosity.
Something about the waiter’s manner, when he told me Scott was in the downstairs dining room, let me know I was in for a bad time; the man seemed pained by a stomachache he didn’t care to discuss. “Scott – ” he began, then grimaced and pointed downstairs. He disappeared into the kitchen. I went downstairs. I was halfway there when I spotted Scott from the landing. He was sitting at a corner table, writing a letter with an emphatic, wounded look, his face flushed with beer and what appeared to be incipient tears. I considered bolting, but finally went over and said hello.
He didn’t look up. He kept writing until he came to a stop, then capped his gold-plated fountain pen – a gift from Burck – and put the letter aside.
“Who’re you writing?”
“Ma,” he said. “I was just telling her that if you didn’t show up – ”
“Why wouldn’t I show up?”
I looked at my watch. “Five minutes?”
“We said noon.”
“No, Scott, I’m pretty sure we said 12:30.”
For a moment I thought he’d pursue the matter, nastily, but he just sat there shaking his head and looking depressed. With two fingers he picked up his bottle and waggled it at a passing waiter, who asked, “This your brother, Scott?”
He nodded. I ordered a beer, too, and the waiter went away.
“So tell me about yourself,” Scott sighed.
I tried, doing my best to stress the sordid aspects of my life – the drunken blackouts, the verminous duplex in New Orleans, the mossy glasses, the colourful day in the Denton, Texas, jail, and so on, but my brother didn’t cheer up or laugh because it wasn’t funny. The fact remained that I was a student at a decent college (as my mother was keen to remind Scott) having the time of my life, and doubtless I struck my brother as the kind of simpering twit who found his own life so amusing, all the more so in light of his (that is, my) basic contentment. However, another topic of conversation (Mum tells me you’re a busboy again; how’ d that happen?) was slow to recommend itself, so I kept prattling until Scott interrupted.
Scott, left, and the author, circa ages nine and six, respectively
I said that our father seemed fine. “In fact,” I added, “never better.”
“Oh, you know, just in good fettle. Fewer worries, I guess.”
My brother abruptly reared in his seat, raking his eyes over the room until they fell on our waiter. “How’re those beers coming, Phil?”
The waiter paused with a laden tray. “In a moment, big guy,” he said, with a faint edge to his voice, that of a waiter addressing a busboy. My brother kept his eye on the man until he was certain some positive action was being taken; then he turned back to me.
“Well, isn’t that nice?” he said.
“Isn’t what nice?”
“That Pa’s so cheerful. That he’s so – so peachy keen.”
“Yes,” I said, “it certainly is.”
We sat there glaring at each other. The beers arrived.
“Will you guys be ordering?” the waiter asked. He clapped his hands, once, twice, at his waist. “Or d’you need a few minutes?” Clap. “Or – ”
“We need a few minutes,” my brother said flatly. The man departed with a worried glance over his shoulder.
“What’s good here?” I asked Scott.
“Nothing. Order a hamburger. So does he ever mention me?”
“Papa? Not much… Or no, wait, come to think of it, I seem to recall something he said about how you like to tell people you were beaten as a child.”
There was a pause. A vague look of shame, or something, fluttered around Scott’s face like a skittish bird, then flew away. “He told you that?”
“And what, he denied it?”
“It’s not a question of denying it, Scott. He knows what happened. I know what happened. You were spanked a few times. If you want to blame your whole fucked-up life on that, fine, but don’t – ”
“When I was a little boy,” he said, loading the words with poignancy, “he’d make me drop my pants and lie on the bed. Then he’d take off his belt and start lashing the bed with it, just to scare me. To scare the shit out of me. When I was four or five years old…”
He went on like that, building to the climax of the actual spanking (or “beating” or “lashing”). His eyes peered at some vision over my left shoulder. I didn’t bother to interrupt.
“Bravo,” I said when he’d finished, limply clapping my hands.
Scott swallowed and gave a quick angry laugh. “You better watch your ass, man.”
He gave me a look of loony menace, as in You’ll see.
“Fuck you,” I said. “Listen: I have the same father, and I got the same spankings. The reason he whipped the bed was because half the time he had no intention of whipping us, and it sure as hell didn’t traumatise me. So fuck you if you can’t take a joke. How dare you. You practically ruin the man’s life – ”
“Oh yeah, his life is so – ”
“You ruin both our parents’ lives, and now you – ”
Our waiter was back. “Guys, guys,” he said, frantically patting the air, “keep it down or you’re gonna have to – ”
“Tell him to be quiet,” said Scott with elaborate calm. He crossed his legs and shrugged. “He just went apeshit on me.”
“OK, Scott. Just – ” The waiter shook his head and walked away.
Scott watched him go, then leaned as far across the table as possible without leaving his seat. “You better not get me fired, man,” he said.
I sat there looking at him, my eyelids drooping, as if to suggest that getting fired from his little busboy job was about the best thing that could happen to him, short of dropping dead. I didn’t trust myself to speak.
Appearing to calm down for both of us, Scott crossed his legs again and leaned back, steepling his fingers; then he remarked in a measured tone that I’d never really “gotten” our father. “He’s the Wizard of Oz,” said Scott. “You know?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know. Tell me.”
“Smoke and mirrors, Zwieb. The whole persona. The great man in public, you know, the whole facade of wisdom and benevolence. But underneath the whole – the whole illusion – ”
“You mutt,” I said. “You’re a mutt.” Mutt? I don’t know why the word occurred to me, but at any rate I let it sink in. “Mutt. Tell you what, mutt, unless you apologise for what you just said, I’m leaving.”
My brother said nothing.
“So long, mutt.”
I was halfway up the stairs when I heard a mumbled “Sorry.” I paused to look down at my brother: he was glaring at the table as though in furious pain, as though the word sorry had been gouged out of him with a toothpick. I kept going. I was out the door and striding into the parking lot when I heard a rush of footfalls – too late. The impact caused my last swallow of beer to gush out of my stomach; then I was on the asphalt with a sour taste in my mouth.
Above me I heard a rapid whisper, “Sorry, man, I just…”
“Get away from me.”
The author, left, and Scott in 1988, sitting on their mother’s couch in Norman, Oklahoma
I stumbled in the direction of my car. At first Scott plucked at me from behind – my elbow, a belt loop, a pocket – saying “please” a lot and “Blake,” but when I kept going he grabbed my shirt collar and yanked. I fell backward out of my polo shirt and landed on the pavement again, absurdly barebacked. I groped for my shirt, but Scott held it out of my reach.
“You can have it when you – ”
I got to my feet and resumed walking to my car with what I hoped was a kind of dignity, despite my skinny, scuffed-up bare torso. I was conscious of a huddle of witnesses gathering around the exit. For their benefit, no doubt, Scott hugged me almost gently from behind and planted his feet.
“Blake, stop. Goddamn it…”
I waited for him to let go; finally he released me from the bear hug but kept hold of my wrist, deftly transferring my wadded shirt to his left hand as he did so. Once I had an arm free, I gave him a glancing blow to the forehead. He glared at me, blinking, but held on. I punched him in the mouth and flailed wildly out of his grasp. He caught up with me a few feet from my car and tackled me to the pavement again. This time he stayed on top and didn’t speak when I told him to get off. I began to yell for help. All my brother’s strength went into holding me there; every few moments he’d let out a wet little pant or a snuffle.
“Let him up, Scott.”
“C’mon man, you can’t do this shit here…”
Two big guys in aprons were peeling him off me; our waiter looked on. All three spoke to Scott in low, soothing voices, as if to a hurting child.
“Just cool it, man. It’s over. Calm down now.”
“You OK?” one of them asked me.
On his feet again, my brother was bouncing on his toes with a pathetic swagger. He was trying not to cry, but his nasal voice had a quaver. “I didn’t do anything to him, Phil,” he told our waiter. “You saw! I was just sitting there talking to him, man, and he starts –”
Phil, the waiter, was shaking his head and patting the air. “You don’t have to explain to me, Scott. This is between you and your brother. I just think – ”
“Then he gets up and just leaves me there – ”
Scott’s voice broke and he buried his face in his hands. One of the big guys put an arm around him and gave him a consoling jostle. All three were glancing at me with a curious mixture of sympathy and reproach.
“He needs to get out of here now,” the waiter told me, “before the manager comes out. Can you give him a ride?”
I sighed, said sure, and picked my shirt off the pavement where Scott had dropped it. It was ripped at the collar and drooped loosely around my neck, exposing one nipple. My brother wouldn’t uncover his face, so I touched his arm and guided him around to the passenger side of my car. The others were saying “Later, Scott” and “See you tomorrow, man,” in kind voices, waving, before hurrying back to the restaurant.
Inside the car, my brother gathered his breath with a long sizzling hiss and held it, grimacing, then all at once he doubled over sobbing. I drove. I couldn’t bear it. Even now I can’t bear it – the immensity of those minutes.
At some point I ventured to touch the back of his neck and ask where he lived. He confided the usual terrible address. I parked in an alley behind the place – the worst place yet – and we sat in silence punctuated by his sniffles. Finally I asked if he was going to be all right.
“I don’t know,” he said in a hollow whisper. “I don’t know, man.” He sat there. Sometimes he’d let out a deep sigh, an exhausted whew. “You want to come up?” he asked finally, staring out the window.
“I’d like to,” I said, “but I can’t. I just don’t have time. Sorry.”
Scott seemed to accept the lie without bitterness, as if he were grateful I’d spared him the truth – namely that every second in his company was misery.
“Mind if I just sit here another minute?”
“Of course not.”
He looked too tired to cry, but every few seconds the tears would come anyway and he’d grimace with an effort to hold them back. He coughed a number of times and said, “Do you think Papa – ” He coughed again. “Do you think Papa will ever want to see me again?”
I decided to be honest. I said something to this effect: our father would always forgive him in the end, and that was a pity, because it spared Scott the effort of earning his forgiveness. I told Scott that his life was repulsive (“Sorry, but there it is”), that he’d brought nothing but heartache to anyone who’d ever made the mistake of caring for him. I told him that if he couldn’t change he should just keep away. From all of us.
Somewhere in there Scott began to sob again. He spoke in mournful heaves, barely able to catch his breath: “How can you s-say that?… I’m your brother. I luh-love you. I’m your fucking brother…”
I stared out the window at the dreary littered lawns, the rusted monkey bars and scattered backyard crap of that awful neighbourhood. All the while my brother was forcing words through his sobs: “Look at me… my only friends are n-niggers… I can barely pay my shit – my shitty rent… I’m a fuck – fucking 23-year-old b-busboy… I can’t get rid of these fucking pimples…”
I was about to say, as gently as possible, “Scott, whose fault is that?” – when he mentioned the pimples, something I could hardly blame him for. Finally I sighed and said I was sorry, but I had to go. I said I’d call him.
Scott nodded wearily, dragging a hand over his face. A string of snot stuck to his palm and he flung it out the window. “Promise?” he said.
It was the last I saw of him for a long time.
Excerpted from The Splendid Things We Planned: A Family Portrait, which you can buy here.
Copyright © 2014 by Blake Bailey. With the permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.