Sam Anderson reviews the new Roald Dahl biography, twenty years after his death, and recaps the series of unlucky mishaps that led Dahl to write such fantastic stories:
Dahl had an idyllic childhood until the age of 3, when his older sister suddenly died and was followed, weeks later, by her heartbroken father. This was the beginning of a toxic tsunami of bad luck that would toss Dahl around for the rest of his life. When he was a boy, his nose was cut off in a car accident. (A doctor sewed it back on.) Then he was shipped off to boarding school in England, where he suffered all the traditional miseries. In World War II, he became one of the RAF’s most promising pilotsonly to crash his plane, on his first official day of flying, in the Libyan Desert. As he lay there fighting for consciousnesshis skull fractured, his spine wrenched out of place, his eyes swollen shut by burns, his poor reattached nose driven back into his facehis airplane’s machine guns, stoked by the heat, started shooting at him...
When Dahl became a parent, the bad luck continued. In New York, his 4-month-old son was hit so hard by a taxi that his baby carriage flew 40 feet and slammed into a parked bus, shattering his skull. (He survived, barely.) Two years later, Dahl’s 7-year-old daughter died of a rare brain inflammation after getting measles. Then his 39-year-old wife, the actress Patricia Neal, had an aneurysm and fell into a coma for three weeks.The man who emerged from this vortex of misfortune was excruciatingly complexit’s sometimes hard to know, reading Storyteller, whether to root for Dahl or for whatever angry hell-demon seemed so determined to bring him down.
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