If you don’t come away from this book with adoration for this lovable weirdo, something’s wrong with you. I didn’t want to stop reading this, seriously considering throwing off all plans until the very last page reached. The Paris Review had a lovely excerpt from the book detailing Thom Gunn’s admiration of how Sacks had changed from the daredevil drug-chugging motorcycle leather daddy whose prose could be quite cruel into a more centered and empathetic writer. Weschler reveals that in the early 80s he planned to write a profile of Sacks for the New Yorker and spent several years gathering material before Sacks asked him not to publish it because he was deeply closeted and had been celibate for several years, not wanting his sexuality raked about in public. Sacks had a change of heart on his deathbed in 2015, and thus we get this delightful tome.
During WW2, most London parents sent their children to the countryside and the Sacks were no exception. It was here that Oliver experienced abuse that scarred him for life, perhaps seeping into all his relations and his manic personality. He goes on to become a doctor, then flees England before he’s drafted, landing in Canada then SF and LA before settling in NYC.
Despite claiming that women’s anatomy was a complete scotoma (one of Sacks’s favorite words, a pathological hole in your visual field), at the age of 20 he ghostwrote a book with his mother about menopause, Women of Forty: The Menopausal Syndrome by Muriel Elsie Landau. This was before, I think, he came out as gay to his parents, whereupon his mother released an hours-long Deuteronomy-driven harangue before lapsing into the silent treatment for days and then never mentioning it again.
Sacks’s drug use: his slogan was “Every dose an overdose” and was known for being greedy, sucking down as much LSD and amphetamines that he could find. He was also addicted to acceleration and speed, zooming to the Grand Canyon through the night on his motorcycle at more than 100mph.
“For all my failures and the suicide which will probably end it all, I do have a feeling of developing, though, of being different at fifty than I was at forty, at forty than at thirty. I don’t know how people who don’t develop bear it.”
What types of books captivated him as a child? “Moby-Dick. What can you say about Moby-Dick? There’s Shakespeare and there’s Moby-Dick and that’s that.” Also: “Early on an editor told me I was too florid, to be more spare, to be like Hemingway, which among other things prevented me from liking Hemingway.” And: “Dickens wasn’t Dickens: He was life.”
Describing his first year at Oxford: “something bizarre must have been going on in terms of reading and searching: I was insatiable. I read Western philosophy with a sort of desperation. It didn’t work. I didn’t get anything, I didn’t retain anything, the only value in retrospect having been that 20 years later, I knew where to look… I became learning-voracious, swallowing up enormous obsessive amounts… If one could dig out the record of the library from that year, one would see what kind of strange, futile frenzy it was.”
On one phone call, Oliver excitedly relates that after swimming he returned to shore only to find that the rock beneath his foot moved, the whole field of rocks a horde of horseshoe crabs beached for mating. “My people have come!” Oliver crowed.
His relationship with the truth was something he struggled with all the time: “its not that I invent the truth. Rather I intuit or imagine it.”
He begins to be recognized in the 1980s; one turning point seems to be the 1984 lecture he gave at the NYPL, introduced by Susan Sontag who cooed about his writing style. Weschler mentions being there in the audience: “Jasper Johns is seated behind me: it’s that sort of crowd.”