Familiar Spirits is Alison Lurie’s 2001 memoir of two men with whom she was friends for nearly 40 years– celebrated poet James Merrill, and his partner David Jackson. According to Lurie, the young Jackson was as talented as the unpublished Merrill. As the years wear on, however, Merrill attains fame and the highest of literary honors while Jackson’s novels are regularly rejected by publishers. Frustrated, Jackson retreats, ceasing his literary aspirations beyond the Ouija-board collaborations which result in Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover. As he slowly and then suddenly becomes a shell of his former self, Jackson seeks solace in impersonal sex and substances of abuse, earning Merrill’s complaint: “…He doesn’t realize, he doesn’t think– he doesn’t use his mind anymore. And you know, if you don’t, it’s like any muscle, it atrophies.” Merrill, for his part, later falls in love with Peter Hooten, rendered by Lurie as a shallow clone of Merrill’s younger self, selfishly intent on keeping Merrill from Jackson and the friends they share.
I was struck by much in this account– the utter destruction sown amongst a once-loving couple, the decades-long sacrifice of Merrill’s creative energies to the Ouija board, Lurie’s acute descriptions of the fabrics and colors of clothing worn by her subjects– and especially by the candor whereby Lurie paints a portrait that is both love letter and character assassination. Her tale is tender like a bruise, displays great affection and yawning disappointment, is as complicated as only old friends can be. One has the clear sense that the heartbreak of “Jimmy and David” was not only their own, but was felt by many. In the end, Lurie questions whether Merrill’s estimable body of work is worth the price he and those close to him paid in life. This is the harshest of critiques, plausible and relevant only because of the obvious quality of Lurie’s friendship, and the more damning therefore.
The final act of this tragedy plays out here in Key West, where Jackson and Merrill wintered during the 1980s in Jackson’s home at 702 Elizabeth St. As the ’80s give way to the ’90s, the decline in Merrill and Jackson’s emotional and physical health becomes part, for Lurie, of a larger fabric of lamented change. AIDS continues its assault, and a long real estate boom has begun. As one who feels complicit in the destructive behaviors of a close friend, Lurie shoulders some of the blame:
Key West had changed too, … and not for the better. It was no longer a little-known paradise for writers and artists. There were more tourists, more expensive motels and guesthouses, more T-shirt shops. Huge floating-hotel cruise ships had begun to dock, often blocking the sea view from Mallory Dock for most of the day.
The worst thing about it was that those of us who had recently discovered the island were guilty of these changes. Earlier winter residents had been more discreet; they might mention the island in a poem or a story, but they didn’t write articles about it for glossy travel magazines and newspapers, as we naively did.
As a native of Key West, I was caught off-guard by Lurie’s twist—I’m sorry—on a common longing for the good old days. It never occurred to me to blame any of “our” writers for writing of what they found here. But it is an interesting argument. One gets the sense that the forces which ravage Merrill and Jackson’s relationship are akin for Lurie to the “indiscreet” way she and her peers once invited all comers to Key West. If Merrill and Jackson had not followed the Ouija-board-given “advice” by embracing an at-first casual, later destructive, polygamy, could they have remained awake to what Lurie once saw as “the happiest marriage I knew”? If they had not been so generous, so enthusiastic, and so wealthy as to allow so many generosities and enthusiasms, would they have paid more attention to what was happening in their lives? In Lurie’s final words:
If you take no chances, make no sacrifices, and reject the irrational in any form, how can you ever “make it new”? And if you decide to take these chances, will the end justify the means? Unfortunately, we cannot know the answer to any of these questions until long, long afterwards.
Alison Lurie will teach a Writers’ Workshop in Key West this January together with her husband, Edward Hower, Creative Writing from Personal History. You can see a full list of January 2009 Writers’ Workshop offerings here.