Written with her characteristic grace, novelist Alison Lurie's memoir of her friendship with the poet James Merrill and his companion David Jackson offers more than reminiscences, though these are tender, frank, and perceptive. Lurie also considers the broader subjects of fame's arbitrary nature and its impact on a relationship, as well as the perils and pleasures of dabbling in the occult. When she first became close to the couple in 1954, all three were struggling young writers. But while Merrill soon became a critically respected poet, and novels like The War Between the Tates
made Lurie some money as well as a reputation, Jackson remained unpublished and obscure. He was understandably frustrated, and Lurie suggests that the pair's increasing involvement in sessions on their Ouija board were partly an effort to find an outlet for Jackson's creative energies. These sessions formed the basis for Merrill's long poem "The Changing Light at Sandover" (in Lurie's estimation not the best use of his gifts), and she believes they encouraged the men to become dangerously isolated from the real world. Jackson began to drink more heavily, and his casual affairs grew more irritating to Merrill, who launched a serious relationship with a young actor whose uncritical devotion exacerbated tensions between the longtime lovers. Merrill died of AIDS in 1995; the physically and mentally debilitated Jackson, writes Lurie, "is now a ghost in Key West." Her sensitive recollections bring back the time when they were young, beautiful, and in love, with the world before them. Examining the personal and artistic cost of their decades-long engagement with the spirit world, Lurie asks the always relevant, never resolvable questions, "How much should one risk for art? What chances should one take?" --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Novelist Lurie's brief, disturbing memoir covers her four decades of acquaintance with the important American poet Merrill (1926-1995) and his longtime partner, Jackson. Lurie grew friendly with the talented couple when Merrill taught at Amherst alongside Lurie's husband in 1954-1957. Lurie and Jackson were aspiring novelists, Merrill a little-known poet. Though the group dispersed geographically, they stayed friends; Lurie visited Merrill and Jackson's remarkable house in Connecticut, where she compared their successful domestic life to her own increasingly unhappy marriage. Lurie's career as a novelist, and Merrill's fame as a poet, grew throughout the '60s, while Jackson's promising novels remained unpublished. Merrill and Jackson devoted themselves, first to Greece, where they took other lovers, and then to communication with the afterlife via a Ouija board. The Ouija experience of "JM" and "DJ" became the basis for Merrill's well-known long poem, "The Changing Light at Sandover," which integrates autobiography and lyric with didactic messages from beyond. Lurie believes that Merrill and Jackson used Ouija as an escape from Jackson's creative frustrations and from their troubles as a couple, and that it told them what they wanted to hear: Lurie's saddening analyses draw on her researches for her novel about spiritualism and seances, Imaginary Friends. The last third of the memoir follows Merrill and Jackson's life in Key West in the '80s and early '90s: Merrill fell in love with a dangerously clingy younger admirer, while Jackson abandoned himself to one-night stands and then to drink. There is not yet a full biography of Merrill; that means his many fans who want to know more about his personal life have almost nowhere else to turn but here. (Feb.) Forecast: Lurie's name will guarantee review attention and, if sold alongside Knopf's edition of Merrill's work, Collected Poems, due in March, this book should enjoy respectable sales.
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