Hendrickson employs tremendously rigorous research to interrogate the myths that hang around his larger-than-life subject. His is not an effort to exonerate (or make excuses for the bad behavior of yet another white male artist!) but to dig deeply into who Frank Lloyd Wright really was ... This thick volume is not meant to serve as an introduction to Wright or his artistic trajectory...That is not to say that it doesn’t cover Wright’s notable projects or his notions about 'organic architecture' with a great deal of attention and care. If anything, the author overdoes it, parsing too many chronologies and splitting too many hairs with previous Wright biographers ... But Hendrickson’s persistent and expansive curiosity also takes readers beyond Wright in important, revelatory ways ... Passing through [Wright's] darknesses makes you see his buildings, and all that flow, beauty and light, in a new way.
An eccentric synthesis of biography and autobiography, rife with speculation, rumours, myth-shattering and myth-making, sensationalized accounts of Wright’s personal life and highly detailed scrutiny of individuals only peripherally connected with Wright, Plagued by Fire: The dreams and furies of Frank Lloyd Wright takes for granted that the reader is already informed, from biographies by Grant Carpenter Manson, Meryle Secrest, Robert Twombly, Ada Huxtable, Neil Levine and Brendan Gill, among others, of the basic facts of the life of the greatest, and most controversial, of American architects ... Plagued by Fire yields its information piecemeal, like a suspense novel. Through a blizzard of details and speculation on the part of the biographer, who forges ahead, behind, back and forth in time with the zeal of a forensic bloodhound, an intimate portrait of Frank Lloyd Wright gradually materializes, as a pointillist portrait comes into focus at a little distance ... more offensive is the biographer’s protracted, pruriently detailed account of the murders at Spring Green, even as he chides the tabloids for their salaciousness ... Equally jarring is Hendrickson’s aggressive intimacy with the reader ... It is as if the frustrated biographer of Geoff Dyer’s darkly hilarious Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence and the obsessed pseudo-scholar Charles Kinbote of Nabokov’s Pale Fire have collaborated on a work of vaulting ambition, too vast to comprehend, dazzling and elusive, near-unreadable.
About Wright’s architecture, Hendrickson offers little insight, none of it original. His mission, rather, is to re-evaluate Wright as a person. Hendrickson, who unabashedly inserts himself with poetically construed dear reader whispers into his narrative, confesses that his is a hunt for Wright’s 'humanity' ... Let’s get one thing straight. Wright was a cad. Even fervent champions of his architecture acknowledge that. Prudently, Hendrickson concedes the point ... Hendrickson wishes to establish Wright’s 'fundamental decency as a person.' He tilts at this windmill with formidable energy and considerable literary imagination, with an earnestness at once lavish and puzzling ... So: Wright suffered tragedies, felt affection and felt pain, and treated a few people decently. Ergo, he was a man of deep humanity. That’s Hendrickson’s position. Not enough to revolutionize, not enough even to alter, our understanding of the man ... In florid prose, Hendrickson recounts countless episodes tangential to Wright’s life or work, meandering onto all manner of occasionally interesting terrain ... would be simply forgettable if Hendrickson weren’t perpetuating a romantic mythology of artistic genius that is at once tiresome, simplistic, long past its expiration date and wrong. Wright was an imaginative innovator and occasionally an excellent architect, but that doesn’t transform a scoundrel into a tortured genius, let alone a sympathetic character ... In the end, what matters is not the life but the work: its vision, its execution, its lessons, its relevance to the way we do and might live. But none of that is Paul Hendrickson’s concern.