Andrew Shaffer has assembled a wealth, if I may be permitted the word, of information on literature’s bad boys. Beginning with the great granddaddy of literary bad boys, the Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814), and ending with James Frey (b. 1969), Shaffer tells tales of addiction, violence, sexual conquest, and dishonesty that titillate us all.
There is scarcely a page of this book void of some outrage or another.
As a four-year-old, de Sade attacked a royal prince; in his twenties he ran amuck in the brothels of Paris, picking up venereal disease as a matter of course, and more than once being arrested for “mistreating” prostitutes. He only began writing when he was imprisoned for his debaucheries.
Then there was the poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). Tormented to distraction by an older brother, he became a bookish lad, winning scholarships to college. Once there, he embarked on a drinking and gambling binge. Soon, he fell under the spell of Wordsworth and walked 40 miles to the great poet’s home, where the two became great friends. But then Coleridge became addicted to laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol. He wrote “Kubla Khan” under the influence. By 1810, his addiction was so bad, Wordsworth wrote him off.
Lord Byron (1788-1824) came from a long line of degenerates. His grand uncle was known as “the Wicked Lord,” and his father was known as “Mad Jack.” In one year in Italy, Byron was said to have slept with two hundred women, and that’s apart from the teenage boys. At 23, he felt his best years were behind him, but he continued to write. He also continued to have affairs, drink, use laudanum and debauch. He even sodomized his wife, which is nothing compared to William S. Burroughs (1914-1997), who used morphine and accidentally (one hopes) shot and killed his wife. (In this he was unlike Norman Mailer, who in a fit of anger stabbed his wife with a knife. Luckily, she survived.)
There’s more, so much more. For example, there are chapters on the French Decadents, Rimbaud and Verlaine, who shot and wounded Rimbaud (lover’s quarrel), and chapters on the English Decadents, Wilde and Dowson, both of whom died young, as well as chapters on the Americans of the Lost Generation, Fitzgerald, who drank himself to death by the age of 44 and Hemingway, who blew his own brains out in his early sixties, but only after he had gone through four wives and destroyed his talent with drink.
Perhaps the saddest story of them all is that of the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas (1914-1953), who, despite his enormous talent, drank himself to death by age thirty-nine. In short, this is not a happy book, though part of its appeal is schadenfreude, the joy we experience from the unhappiness of others.
The book is a sort of tour de force, and Shaffer has acquitted himself admirably. The chapters are succinct, informative and outrageous. A good read and a kind of cautionary tale. You can’t become a great writer simply by behaving badly, Shaffer concludes, but you do have to stand out, you do have to be willing to defy conventional society and its norms.