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Big Sometimes Friendly Giant


Dahl with Patricia Neal and two of their children in 1964.  

Little Roald was born in 1916, in Wales, where his father had started a lucrative shipping business. (He was named “Roald” after a famous Norwegian explorer; the proper pronunciation, apparently, is like “RuPaul” without the P.) 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 pilots—only to crash his plane, on his first official day of flying, in the Libyan Desert. As he lay there fighting for consciousness—his skull fractured, his spine wrenched out of place, his eyes swollen shut by burns, his poor reattached nose driven back into his face—his airplane’s machine guns, stoked by the heat, started shooting at him. (Dahl later mythologized this, telling people he’d been shot down.)

After he’d recuperated, Dahl was sent to fight in the notorious Battle of Athens, in which twelve or so RAF fighters took on roughly 150 German planes. He managed to survive, but was plagued by health problems forever after: chronic stomachaches, numb fingers, debilitating back pain, and finally cancer. Strangely, the one thing Dahl never had trouble with was his teeth—because he had all of them removed, preemptively, when he was 21. He thought they were more trouble than they were worth and tried to talk everyone he knew into having theirs pulled, too.

It’s hard to know whether to root for Dahl or for whatever hell-demon seemed so determined to bring him down.

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 complex—it’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. He could, at times, be thoughtful and charming. Sturrock reports that Dahl once wrote his daughters’ names on the front lawn, at midnight, with weed killer, then told them in the morning that it was the work of fairies. He gave much of his time and massive literary profits to charity. And he responded to family crises with almost incredible courage and ingenuity—virtues he assigned, not incidentally, to all the heroes of his stories. After his son’s accident, when most parents would have been catatonic with worry, Dahl helped invent a new valve that kept spinal fluid from pressing on his son’s brain—a tool that turned out to be so effective and cheap (Dahl refused to profit from it) that it was eventually used in thousands of other patients. When his wife emerged from her coma, Dahl coached her through a grueling (some said cruel) rehabilitation regimen that went on to revolutionize modern stroke treatment.

But Dahl was also, much of the time, world-historically unpleasant. As a boy he wrapped his sister in pillows and shot BBs at her. As an adult he picked loud fights at dinner parties just to create a spectacle. He bullied editors, sold out friends, and insulted his children. Neal once recounted a charming moment from their first date: “I remember his taking a sip of wine and looking at me for a long moment through the candlelight. ‘I would rather be dead than fat,’ he said.” He was, in many ways, a stereotypical mid-century wealthy imperial Brit—a bullhorn of prejudice and entitlement whose gaffes could be almost touchingly clueless. “Even a stinker like Hitler didn’t just pick on them for no reason,” he once said about Jews, while attempting to defend himself from accusations of anti-Semitism.

In his stories, however, Dahl’s mean streak got translated, somehow, into a kind of edgy warmth. He was a control freak of delight. Dahl, who’d been a mediocre student, came to believe that his desert plane crash had literally changed his brain in a way that made him start writing stories. Early in his career, he was determined to be the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald. He published twistedly addictive short stories in Collier’s, Harper’s, and The New Yorker. These caught the eye of legendary editor Maxwell Perkins, who wanted to publish Dahl’s first novel. But Perkins died, days later, with the manuscript on his desk, and Dahl’s career as an important novelist never took off. Finally, he gave up on it and channeled his big ambition into minor forms: short stories and, later, children’s books.

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