James T. Farrell's trilogy of books about Chicago tough Studs Lonigan are arguably the most important Irish-American books ever published. And yet, one could argue that Farrell hated most of the very people who fill those books. This is one of the central topics Robert K. Landers addresses in a fine new biography of Farrell, who was born 100 years ago, in 1904. "An Honest Writer: The Life and Times of James T. Farrell" is thorough and revealing, particularly in its detailing of the great amounts of pain and adversity Farrell faced throughout his life. As a youngster in a large Irish Catholic family, he was sent to live with his mother's family and never really returned to live with his parents. It's too simplistic to say this fueled some of the rage in Farrell's novels. But this clearly had an effect on Farrell, who would become one of the few artistic types in his family, abandoning Catholicism and championing the Marxist Leon Trotsky. Even later in life, though he was a well-known writer, there were always money troubles, and Farrell was never a critics' darling. He also experienced divorce, lost a child at birth, and another was born so severely disabled that he lived for decades in a home. Landers' book is at its best when it relates Farrell's life to his work, but there is far too much space devoted to arcane wars between various Communists, socialists, Marxists and other leftists. Still, what emerges is a portrait of an ambitious, insecure, humble, and, in many ways, Catholic writer. Landers also does not ignore the flaws in much of Farrell's work. "An Honest Writer," ultimately, is, well, an honest assessment of an important American writer. ($28.95 / 562 pages / Encounter Books)
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