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 complicated sons.
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.
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.
Tóibín never labors his book’s point about the excesses of masculinity, preferring to focus on telling details and their analogues in his subjects’ work. Through them, he makes Mad, Bad, Dangerous to Know an engaging study of influence, ambition, love—and their discontents.