Finding Charles Jackson
Author: Steven Cordova
October 13, 2013
How happy the self-centered Charles Jackson would be to know 2013 has been The Year of Charles Jackson. In February, Vintage/Random House reprinted his 1944 debut novel, The Lost Weekend, and a slightly modified version of his 1950 short-story collection, The Sunnier Side: Twelve Arcadian Tales. Then, no more than a month later, Knopf/Random House published Father and Wilder: The Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson, a biography by Blake Bailey.
If you’re asking yourself who this Charles Jackson is, or why you’d want to read anything he wrote, you’re probably not alone. And each of your questions is all the more interesting—poignant, even—because these days LGBT readers consciously turn to art and literature for heroes, for role models and for positive reflections of themselves.
Like most people, Charles Jackson possessed some positive qualities only some of the time. The rest of the time, and unlike most people, he created a lot of suffering—for himself and for others, too. He was an alcoholic and, even when sober, Jackson was obsessed with his career. His obsession took over many a conversation; it filled many a letter. He was ever the braggart. He died at The Chelsea Hotel in 1963. He was 65 years old and his literary heyday was far behind him. The cause: an overdose of pills.
Charles Jackson’s troubling biography aside, there are still a lot of good reasons to read The Lost Weekend and The Sunnier Side.
First of all, The Lost Weekend is an early contribution to addiction literature, one that gay writers as diverse as Augusten Burroughs and Bill Clegg continue to this day. Second, both The Lost Weekend and The Sunnier Side are autobiographical creative writing, a tradition carried on by contemporary gay novelists like Edmund White and Andrew Holleran. (The aforementioned Burroughs and Clegg are, admittedly, nonfiction writers. But much of Jackson’s work, as I’ve indicated, can only loosely be called “fiction,” and much the same can be said for White and Holleran.) A third reason is that The Lost Weekend is a fascinating portrait of Don Birman, a closeted gay man living in big-city America between the wars; while in contrast, the interconnected stories in The Sunnier Side backtrack and collectively form a portrait of Don growing up in Arcadia, a small town in Upper New York State, pre-WWI.
Lastly (and here’s the most compelling reason to read Jackson): a fine prose-style; a style as lucid as White or Holleran’s, and just as intelligent and incisive; a style so clear-headed it leaves you feeling clear-headed, too—all this, and more, simply because, like a good friend, Jackson’s voice and style are marvelously intimate.
Beginning with The Sunnier Side, here is Jackson describing a humorous slice of American life between the wars. The passage demonstrates how the black-hearted Jackson could be funny, too:
There was no radio in those days, but Mrs. Kirtle was just as good. By some mysterious gift, she always managed to hear things before anybody else and immediately got on the phone or rushed across the backyards, ducking under clotheslines and rapping on kitchen doors. “Pauline Revere,” the boys called her, and their mother suppressed a smile and scolded them for disrespect.
By contrast, in the urbane Lost Weekend, Jackson turns his razor-sharp style on the disturbing internal life of Don Birnham, an alcoholic wannabe writer on a four-day binge in and around New York City:
… [Don] could move through the city at will … going here and there about the town like a ghost, unknown, unnoticed, like a man moving in a kind of time-out. A solo flight (flight indeed) unheeded by anyone because no one knew who he was (whoever stopped the anonymous drunk?)
The Lost Weekend appeared on best seller lists across the country, it sold half a million paperback copies and, only one year later, the novel was adapted for the screen by Billy Wilder, securing a sure place for itself in American culture when it swept the Academy Awards in 1945.
I’d heard that Don’s suppressed homosexuality was of course excised from the movie. But I hadn’t heard a thing about how another gay character, a nurse who tends to Don when he winds up in a kind of psych ward, failed to appear on screen. Nor did I hear much talk about the homosexuality in one of the novel’s final scenes. In the scene, Don is paranoid and in the Manhattan subway system (another place no one, except perhaps the police, will stop an anonymous drunk). Having just found money in his coat pocket, a means to continue his binge, the scene unfolds like this:
He had to get where he could look at that windfall of bills in private, count them without anyone seeing. He changed one of the dirty dollar bills at the window, put a nickel in the slot and bumped through the stile. There was a Men’s Room down the platform to the left. He slammed against the door and rushed in.
Two men who had been standing inside stepped back suddenly from the urinals. He looked up at them in alarm. Both averted their faces in casual fashion and assumed the most unconcerned expression in exactly the same way. He ducked at once for one of the toilets and let the door fall to behind him. Then he sat down, crouching and holding his breath, listening intently to hear if the two men should leave.
There was not a sound.
To help understand the importance of scenes such as this one—a tea-room scene!—remember that The Lost Weekend was published in 1944, four years before Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, twelve years before James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, and now the book is available again, complete with a helpful introduction by Bailey. Read it. Read The Sunnier Side. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed and I think you may even find a good deal that’s heroic, that’s positive and, best of all, a good deal that’s well-written and, yes, still relevant.