Mining new material, including personal letters from Thomas himself, Paul Ferris recounts the life of this tragic figure.. Dylan Thomas's life and work have made him a legendary figure in the decades since his death, amidst alcohol and debts, in New York at the age of thirty-nine. At the heart of his achievement are a few dozen poems and stories which, together with his "play for voices," Under Milk Wood, haunt the imagination and give his writing a broader appeal than he could have envisioned in his lifetime.Consumed by his vocation as The Poet, ever doubting his own talent, Thomas spent much of life reflecting upon his own worth. But beyond his writing is the checkered figure of the man himself: often comic, at times in despair, always self-obsessed, in the end defeated by his own nature.
If we can't get inside Dylan Thomas - and the odds are we can't - the best a biographer can do is to debunk the myth without deflating the man, and this the poet's fellow Welshman has brought off with tremendous grace, economy, and savvy. Applying a tender, witty skepticism to the contradictions between much-told (by Dylan and others) anecdotes and the evidence of letters and interviews, Ferris watches the Swansea schoolmaster's son grow from chronic liar, petty thief, and teen-age plagiarist into the "naughty boy from the provinces" who made a wunderkind splash and (out of funds whatever his fluctuations of income) "made begging into a cottage industry." The childish need to please and be taken care of - playing dog-on-all-fours to amuse a crowd, surrendering to the comforts of "Comrade Bottle" - is counterpointed with the uncompromising poet (and poser) at his boathouse desk: anything but lazy or random, unceasingly self-critical (a "freak user of words, not a poet"), producing barely a poem a year - along with wartime filmscripts, stories, and Under Milk Wood - after the initial youthful outpour. A figure of pathos, but Ferris never wallows or sensationalizes - not even on the American poetry-reading tours (wife Caitlin saw them as orgies of "flattery, idleness and infidelity") that helped speed Thomas to his death at 39 in 1953 on a crest of notoriety. And Dylan's own voice - in letter and conversation - dominates throughout, a voice of "obsessive serf-awareness" but one of such constant surprise and spirit that even when it bemoans this "creature whose sad-sack body encircles me and whose fat head wakes up on my pillow every morning," the vigor of expression annihilates serf-pity. This biography does not do everything. Ferris, blessed by his non-academicism everywhere else, seems a trifle tentative when facing the knotty poems themselves. And the relationships with Pamela Hansford Johnson and with Caitlin ("birdlike - a bird of prey or paradise, depending on her mood") slide by rather limply - the only serious victims of the detachment that sacrifices an occasional heart-clutch for the consistent satisfactions of scrupulous scholarship, descriptive brilliance (the Wales locales especially), and a sneaking affection for a life of "guile and beer." (Book-of-the-Month Club Selection for December.) (Kirkus Reviews)