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Plagued by the nightingale

A FRIEND who chose to remain anonymous wrote that Tennessee Williams was "his own greatest work of fiction ... a tragicomic genius on and off the stage, a lyric poet whose wry, sad protagonists lived life through each sweaty nuance, in much the same way as he chose to live. He was often impossibly demanding, purposefully irrational, egocentric, vulnerably generous, and hilariously funny, all within the same 60 seconds." Before the Beats and the confessional poets came along, and long after the artist as doomed bohemian outsider had rotted into cliche, Williams elected to walk on the wild side, and somehow hammered enduring sense out of the rough trade that was his emotional life.

His father Cornelius was a hard-drinking shoe salesman whose middle name ("Coffin") was the sort of Freudian joke no writer would dare to invent. Edwina, his mother, was a faded yet indomitable southern belle who fought like an alley cat to keep her head in the clouds and somewhere along the way became "president of the anti-sex league", which didn't improve Cornelius's temper.

Thomas Lanier Williams III was born in Columbus, Mississippi in 1911, 14 months after his sister Rose and eight years before Walter, who got as close to normality as anyone in the family ever managed. As an adolescent Tom was short, shy, blushed easily, struggled at school, lived in "a world of his own". Cornelius took to calling him Miss Nancy. Edwina bought him a ten-dollar typewriter, when he was 12, for the stream of poems and stories that came pouring out of his bedroom. Rose's long descent into insanity began in 1928, just as Tom was treated to a European tour by his grandfather. Cornelius cut short his college course in journalism by refusing to pay any more fees. Three years in the satanic mills of the shoe company ended in breakdown. At nights he pounded the typewriter until all hours; his mother often found him asleep next morning, fully clothed, slumped over a mountain of typescript. "I wrote not with any hope of making a living at it, but because I found no other means of expressing things that seemed to demand expression," he said later.

The reality was hellish boredom at work and hellish emotional squalor at home, intensified by Rose's hospitalisation. He took heart from the company of his lifelong hero Hart Crane. "I've been reading a lot of ... Crane's poetry - like it - but hardly understand a single line - of course the individual lines aren't supposed to be intelligible. The message, if there actually is one, comes from the total effect ..."

That nicely honest and acute response wouldn't have won him any plaudits at the University of Washington, where he resumed his studies, but it has the authentic sound of writerly hunger and intuition. He was feeding on Chekhov, too, and even more on Lawrence. Academics were bores, "professional againsters". The voluminous journals and unposted letters provide a vivid interior monologue, and this biography makes excellent use of them. It needed an outside eye though to record his demonic method of composition:

"He would do, say, a half page or two pages, and it was fast ... It was as if he was throwing dice - as if he was working toward a combination or some kind of result and wouldn't have any idea what the result might be but would recognise it when he got there."

Much the same was true of his personal life. He remained a virgin until his mid-twenties, never quite sure whether he was straight or gay - "So much filth nowadays ... Or is it filth? Perhaps it is only robust, natural life boiling up to the surface

Williams was an inveterate loner but also keen on parties and booze. Soon he settled into the series of flights and flophouses that suited what he called his "rebellious puritan" spirit, moving to New Orleans (where Tom was made over into "Tennessee"), visiting Hollywood, Frieda Lawrence at Taos ("a hat & coat of bobcat fur - shouts - bangs - terrific! Not a member of the female sex - but woman"), and starting to gain recognition for his poems and plays. "I have only one major theme ... the destructive impact of society on the sensitive, non-conformist individual." Or Tom versus the World.

Courage and recklessness of a high order made him a survivor, bumming along on nickels and dimes for months at a stretch. "Tennacity", as another friend saw, kept him at the work face, despite the orgiastic lifestyle he adopted once he discovered the camp underworld of pickups and casual sex. A brief, intense love affair with a dancer, Kip Kiernan, ended in heartbreak because Kip wanted to marry and go straight. Tom wrote him a valediction: "I hereby bequeath you the female vagina, which vortex will inevitably receive you with or without my permission. But I love you (with a robust manly love, as Whitman would call it), as much as I love anybody." This was an understatement. Kip's "lettuce-green eyes" and body odour haunted him for the rest of his life.

As ever he endured in words, moving on from the social-protest plays of his youth to "a sex play with cosmic overtones", Battle of Angels, adapted from Lawrence's short story "The Fox". It was tried out in Boston, but the New England solar plexus wasn't ready for "putrid" stuff about the life force, and it bombed. Tennessee kept reworking it for years, and it duly evolved into Orpheus Descending.

"Plagued by the nightingale" (sex), convinced that "dead people give the best advice ... Live", ineligible for the draft because of poor eyesight, traumatised by the continuing family saga back in St Louis (Rose lobotomised, mother and father "bravely continuing the quarrel that must have started the first time they found themselves in a dark room together"), winning the odd prize, alternating between dead-end jobs and a well-paid stint in Hollywood, Williams started work on the play that was to become The Glass Menagerie and beckon him towards "the catastrophe of success".

Lyle Leverich is not the most subtle of biographers. Dubious summaries and wooden transitions coexist with shrewd insights. "In him, the artist was the rational force, the man the irrational dissembler." This 600-page whopper takes us only halfway through the frenetic life, but he has assembled such a rich dossier of sources that we can make up our own minds about Tennessee's long journey into the southern night. For that he deserves our thanks.