In her empathetic, revealing and brisk new biography, Carol Sklenicka frames Adams’ life and work within themes of escape, redemption and persistence ... Sklenicka deftly deploys quoted bits to illustrate how the life and work are so intricately intertwined. The art of literary biography — Sklenicka previously explored Raymond Carver — thus resembles an enormous, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle ... Twenty years after her death at 72 — perhaps ironically, of heart failure — Adams’ footprint has faded. Sklenicka’s portrait may well encourage new readers and justifiably revive her reputation.
Carol Sklenicka is a lucid, scrupulous writer ... Her description of, say, a late-life surgical procedure that Adams endured would pass muster in a neurosurgeon’s how-to guide. Such a conscientious and (it must be said) rather humorless sensibility works well with inherently dramatic material, and so is perhaps better suited for a redemptive fable about the colossal alcoholic Carver, who somehow kicked both booze and the worst predations of his machete-wielding editor, Gordon Lish. By comparison, most of Adams’s life had a fairly decorous surface ('Never a harsh word') whose fraught subtext needs teasing out by a subtle fiction artist ... the prosaic remains decidedly prosaic ... Sklenicka sometimes injects gravitas into these early pages in ways that seem tangential, at best, to the immediate concerns of her teenage subject. Such historical digressions go on for a page or a paragraph, or else are woven into a single sentence like a discolored skin graft ... Sklenicka is prudent and appreciative in her assessment of Adams’s work, but gives no explanation, except obliquely, for the simple fact that Adams isn’t read anymore.
Sklenicka denies any ambiguity in the association between daily life and theory by intersecting the two in a way that would be meaningful even to those who are not well-versed in literary analysis. Her ability to prove the practical applications of such conceptual ideas to both literature and life is enviable ... While she easily analyzes the tribulations of gender for Adams and women more broadly, Sklenicka’s conceptions of race are less explicit. While there are multiple conversations about rampant anti-Semitism during World War II and Adams’s own comments on racism during the war and throughout her life, Sklenicka’s language surrounding Adams’s family history, particularly her mother’s, lacks that same critical consideration and admonishment she applies to gender. At times, Sklenicka comes off as somewhat sympathetic toward white southerners who felt shame and guilt for the crimes committed against black people during slavery, while failing to account adequately for the black experience. In a text that otherwise thoughtfully accounts for various oppressions, these passages don’t meet the mark ... But Sklenicka is clearly a skilled biographer. Her writing is engaging yet simple and lacks the pretense and gentility Adams seemingly would have hated. No detail, story, or analysis feels unnecessary, an accomplishment for a work totaling more than 500 pages. She also proves her depth of research as she includes the political and cultural contexts surrounding the events that impacted Adams and later appeared in her fiction.
Sklenicka’s book traces the lines between the author and her art, though the close reader of Adams’s fiction could deduce much of what her biographer illuminates: an upbringing in the South; a stormy father and a mother with frustrated artistic ambition, dead too young; an unhappy marriage; a host of affairs. If occasionally the biographer seems to reach, well, that’s her job: to use facts and the historical record to help us understand both the life and the art.
It’s hard to imagine any but the true devotee wading in: I think Adams was a superb writer, but I’m not sure I need 500 pages on her. But if you’re the sort who delights in the account of the midcentury artistic life—living on pennies in postwar Paris, selling a short story for enough money to buy a car, palling around with Norman Mailer (perhaps sleeping with him) and Saul Bellow (almost definitely sleeping with him) and Irving Howe (possibly being raped by him)—Portrait of a Writer does deliver.
Biographer Sklenicka...succeeds in creating an intriguing portrait of a midcentury fiction writer arguably better known for her acquaintances and times than for her writing ... A summation of Adams’s place in 20th-century literature would have greatly helped, but Sklenicka’s well-researched biography nevertheless easily evokes the spirit of Adams’s life, times, and works ...
A thorough and often surprising life of the celebrated author of short stories and novels ... an intimate, detailed life ... The author doesn’t provide much information about Adams’ work routines, but there is a deep undercurrent of admiration that sometimes bubbles to the surface ... Pervasive, deep research informs this inspiring story of a writer who demonstrably earned such a sturdy, illuminating biography.