IT ISN’T DIFFICULT to pick out Greg Baxter as he strolls along Dublin’s Lower Ormond Quay. He has been living in Ireland for almost a decade and his native accent has all but disappeared. But, at more than six feet tall, with broad shoulders and a deep tan, the 35-year-old author still looks every inch a Texan.
He is polite too, and neatly dressed. In fact, for a writer who portrays himself as a hopeless degenerate throughout most of his newly published memoir, he looks remarkably well. We adjourn to the bar of the Morrison Hotel, where I plonk a copy of his book, A Preparation for Death, on the table. A dog-eared bookmark peeks out about 20 pages from the end. My gut reaction is to whisk the book away again, to conceal this minor dereliction of my journalistic duties. But in the circumstances, it seems more appropriate to let it all hang out.
“I have left myself in a slightly precarious position,” Baxter admits, when I ask about the ferocious commitment to honesty at all costs evinced in his book. “At the time that I was writing it, I really felt like I had nothing to lose. As a writer, that was a liberating position to be in.” Now that the book is about to be published, one senses he’s not feeling quite as gung-ho. “At least I never compromised,” he says.
Indeed, if there’s one thing can be said for this book, it is that Baxter has not written a self-serving autobiography. Eleven personal essays touch upon such subjects as family, work, sex, relationships and the author’s prodigious drinking habits. They do so with unflinching, pathological and almost gratuitous honesty.
The first chapter alone has Baxter reporting for work drunk, being drunk and severely hungover on the job and and regurgitating press releases as copy at the newspaper he works on. (My doomed attempt to cram the final chapter of his book on the Luas journey here seems like small potatoes by comparison.) Elsewhere, he rarely misses an opportunity to highlight his own failings or impugn his own motives.
A decade ago, the 25-year-old Baxter wrote a novel about a smuggler trafficking illegal immigrants across the Mexico-Texas border. “I blamed a lot of people for it not being a success,” he recalls. “But the fact is that I’m immensely glad now it didn’t get published.” Back then, he admits, he craved success and recognition and felt it was his due. In the intervening years, the pendulum has swung the other way.
After the failure of his first novel, he stumbled into a post teaching a creative writing class in Dublin. Here he rediscovered the writing of Montaigne and St Augustine, both of whom he credits as major inspirations for his change of philosophy. “I sometimes ask my students why Augustine doesn’t lie. The answer is that he doesn’t lie because he was writing to God and God knows everything, so there was no point. My book, hopefully, represents the secularisation of the premise that honesty is the highest virtue.”
What motivates him, if not religious duty? In the book, he speaks of wanting to “pour pure poison into my history, kill it and wrench the hypocrisy”. Having been the most dishonest man in the world, he writes, he now wishes to be the most honest. Was it necessary to court either distinction? He thinks it is. “Each chapter is an essay on failure and the philosophy of failure. I’m interested in the idea of failure as a good thing. I want to embrace that.”
What about acclaim then? Is he genuinely indifferent to what sort of reception the book receives? “I think the content and form of the book is unique,” he says. “There isn’t any other book like it.” He expresses concern, however, about how it will be marketed. He knows some are likely to interpret his act of confession as an act of therapy. But he doesn’t want his book lumped into the redemption memoir category. “There’s no redemption in it,” he insists.
The word redemption does appear on the cover though. “Penguin put the word on the back cover. But it doesn’t appear in the book, that’s for sure.” He might get to meet Oprah, I offer. But Baxter doesn’t see the funny side.
Will he be reading the reviews when they come out? No, he answers, again a little bluntly. But then he concedes that almost all authors probably do end up reading their reviews, eventually. As a regular book critic for The Irish Times, he thinks he has some idea what to expect. “I have a sense that they’ll be bad,” he says.
Well, even if that’s so, there is a sense that part of Greg Baxter that wouldn’t want it any other way.
A Preparation of Death , by Greg Baxter, is published by Penguin Ireland.