"Down and Out in Cambridge" is not, thank God, some crimson-tinged, nostalgia-drenched ode to those fabulous days at fair Harvard when our hearts were young, our minds bright and our pockets empty. To make the title of his book truly accurate, Douglas Fairbairn should have tacked on Miami, Boston, Bimini, the Dry Tortugas and Cannes, not to mention Southborough, Mass., Fort Myers Beach, Fla., and Verona, N.J. A memoir of his first three decades, "Down and Out in Cambridge" reveals a writer growing up in America, pursuing success along conventional lines--and really blowing it. But Fairbairn's manifold disappointments captivate the reader, and all comes right in the end.
His beginnings were pretty unprepossessing; a chronic bed-wetter till 14, he never knew his father, didn't like his stepfather, and was frequently punched out by the tough little Floridians he grew up with. On the other hand, his mother and her husband were independently wealthy during the Depression and raised him on the untouched, shell-strewn beaches near Sanibel Island, where "Schools of minnows being chased by fierce jacks with a blood lust would shimmer all around us for an instant, tickling our legs, and then flash away in zigzag ripples." His family spent those days swimming, fishing, backing Cuban fighters, losing money at Hialeah race track, and bubbling up vats of coquina shell broth to sell in New York. None of their schemes succeeded, but they were happy until a brain tumor transformed his mother into "a great big bald hideously ugly baby all hooked up with bottles and tubes and needles." Her lingering death sucks dry his stepfather's resources, leaving Fairbairn to fend for himself.
Shipped off to boarding school, where everyone treats him as an "exotic" because, at St. Mark's, everyone who was anyone came either from New York or Boston, the author starts to have difficulties. Failing three classes, he graduates with an ersatz diploma only because it's 1945 and there's a governmental hunger for 18-year-olds. After suffering the ultimate humiliation of flunking a wartime Army physical for "severe neurotic symtoms," he enters Harvard and is soon booted out for drunkenness. Returning to Florida disgraced, he works on a line gang blasting coral and starts a novel. He has discovered his me'tier. The first 100 pages of "Welcome Stamp Collectors" finds an editor in New York who "loves" it and demands more. Thrilled but terrified, Fairbairn self-destructs. Unable to put down a single new word, he rewrites the beginning to death and ruins it forever.
But it is his entree back to Harvard, awarding him instant, enduring cachet at the Harvard Lampoon, the famous humor magazine he joins, whose membership at the time included John Updike and George Plimpton:
"That first letter was my whole identity. My friends believed in it and had made me into a romantic figure in their imaginations just on the strength of it: . . . the starving artist, maybe a genius, who lived in the Lampoon, where no one except Elmer Green, the janitor, had ever lived before, and was working on a novel that was probably going to be one of the most fantastic best sellers of all time.
"However, I never thought of myself as a romantic figure. I never thought of myself as anything but a grubby, stinking, quivering, semi-hysterical, chain-smoking, yellow-fingered little fraud who lived in the Lampoon for one reason and one reason alone, because there was nowhere else for me to go."
Unable to afford a room, Fairbairn leads in the Lampoon club house an existence akin to Raskolnikov's. His descriptions of Harvard include no merry cut-ups in the Yard nor scintillating lectures nor caring deans; rather, they seethe with the warping envy of the poor student exposed to wealthy ones. He ends up agreeing vociferously with Fitzgerald's "The rich are different." Fairbairn receives no help from his stepfather and nothing from Harvard except chilly requests that he repay his loans. Eventually his poverty drives him to volunteer as a medical guinea pig at Boston Public Hospital. In the midst of this loneliness and Orwellian destitution, Fairbairn remains obsessed by his half-written novel. Pathetically, he continues to tinker with it, but life had left the manuscript long ago; only a literary corpse remains. He knows this, and it almost literally kills him.
"Down and Out in Cambridge" works beautifully because the older Fairbairn uses language with grace and restraint. Although the structure of the book is unusual--he follows no discernible pattern in the beginning, seeming to dip in and out of the river of his memory--it eventually settles down into a straightforward narrative that leads to a satisfying conclusion.
Ultimately, Fairbairn gives up on his novel and on Harvard. He goes home to Florida and ships out as a deckhand on a yacht. Away from America, and from the expectations of Cambridge, he finds love and comes into his own as a man and a writer. He becomes complete after so many disappointments. It's a wonderful ending.