A study of Irish culture, history, and literature told through the lives and work of three men—William Wilde, John Butler Yeats, and John Stanislaus Joyce—and the complicated, influential relationships they had with their famous sons.
Toibin presents an evocative, engaging portrait not only of 'three prodigal fathers,' as he calls them, but of Dublin in the 19th and early 20th centuries ... Toibin...is an impressive, graceful writer ... he moves nimbly in this book from biography to literary criticism to personal narrative, with glimpses of himself ... This is a thrilling reading that aptly unites Toibin’s novelistic gifts for psychology and emotional nuance with his talents as a reader and critic, in incomparably elegant prose ... The book unavoidably invites questions about the nature of the father-son bond—and then mostly avoids them. That’s to Toibin’s credit ... Always an understated writer, who prefers innuendo to inflection, in this book he evinces a talent for the deadpan ... as Toibin’s wise and resonant book makes clear ... sometimes even an imperfect father gives his son wings and teaches him to fly.
Tóibín takes a personal approach to biographical discovery, dovetailing reminiscences of his own Dublin days with anecdotes about his subjects ... For all this interconnectedness, Tóibín manages to give each literary father a section of his own ... The last stretch of Tóibín’s book is the most straightforward, the closest in method to conventional literary criticism ... even in its plain-spoken final section, this gentle, immersive book holds literary scholarship to be a heartfelt, heavenly pursuit.
Great white literary fathers are not in vogue right now ... Forget those preconceptions, however, because Mr. Tóibín’s investigation into the lives and legacies of what he calls 'three prodigal fathers' is juicy, wry and compelling ... the august academic origins of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know don’t cramp Mr. Tóibín’s relaxed first-person style here ... Mr. Tóibín is writing here as a psychoanalytic literary biographer, somewhat in the Janet Malcolm mode. Thus, like its subject, the critical approach of Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is also out of fashion these days. But, if a critic is going to rely on Freud, what better place to do it in than a book on fathers and sons? Mr. Tóibín’s approach yields especially charged assessments of John B. Yeats and John Stanislaus Joyce—both of whom were Olympian procrastinators and scroungers ... Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know is an entertaining and revelatory little book about the vexed relationships between these three pairs of difficult fathers and their difficult sons.