Bad Behavior

Newsday, 7/20/03
By Tom Beer

If, like many contemporary readers, you are unfamiliar with the writer Richard Yates, please don't read Blake Bailey's excellent new biography, "A Tragic Honesty." Not yet. First, go directly to your local bookstore and buy a copy of Yates' 1961 debut novel, "Revolutionary Road," along with "The Collected Stories of Richard Yates," published posthumously in 2001. Here, you'll find the best of this troubled, talented man: prose that is precise and clean, characters for whom you feel a welter of sympathy and dislike, a sense of life's transitory joys and lingering disappointments.

This is great fiction, and odds are, you'll be left wanting more. There are four other novels in print (as well as two out-of-print ones), though none are quite as brilliant or sustained as "Revolutionary Road" and the best of the stories. And because it's impossible to read Yates without wondering, Who was this man, and why isn't he better known?, there's Bailey's biography.

In "A Tragic Honesty," alas, you'll find the worst of Richard Yates. If you didn't already know his work, I suspect this unvarnished account of his life - spoiled by alcoholism, mental illness, broken marriages and professional neglect - would be a major turnoff. Yates, to be sure, wasn't easy to love: Capable of tremendous affection, he was too often jealous, cruel, self-pitying, misogynistic, homophobic and filled with rage. One can only marvel that this disturbed individual was able to produce writing of such clarity and depth.

Yates was born Feb. 3, 1926, in Yonkers. His father, Vincent, was an unassuming GE salesman. His mother, Ruth (nicknamed "Dookie"), was a flamboyant, contradictory woman: A sculptor with a self-conscious "artistic" temperament, she was also a staunch Republican who craved respectability. Bailey notes that the couple had "little more in common than a fondness for liquor and cigarettes," and after nine years of marriage and the birth of two children, they were divorced. Dookie is the overwhelming, inescapable figure of Yates's childhood: first inspiring, then suffocating. Above all, he came to resent her irresponsible delusions, especially the belief that her career breakthrough was always just around the corner.

Dookie appears again and again in Yates' books: as Alice Prentice in "A Special Providence," Pookie Grimes in "The Easter Parade" and Gloria Drake in "Cold Spring Harbor," each depiction varying in its degree of grotesquerie. Also turning up repeatedly in fictional disguise are his years at a second-rate boarding school; a brief, not-especially-glorious stint in the Army during World War II, and his stay in the TB ward of a veterans' hospital. Yates promiscuously recycled his life experiences in all the novels and stories; Bailey calls it his "selective genius," the "ability to shape life in the precise terms of his artistic vision."

Back from Europe after the war, Yates met Sheila Bryant, an attractive 19-year-old stenographer. Marriage would prove a means of escape from Dookie's emotional stranglehold but posed challenges of its own. The couple had two daughters, Sharon and Monica, whom Yates loved unconditionally, but relations with Sheila frayed, and he began to drink heavily. During these years, Yates toiled at a mind-numbing PR job, and, with Flaubert and Fitzgerald as his guiding lights, began to write in the evenings. His stories did not find much favor with the magazines of the day. "Why does he have to write so unpleasantly that one feels there's just no good in anybody?" an editor at Harper's explained in rejecting one submission.

The publication of "Revolutionary Road" seemed like a turning point, the kind of breakthrough Dookie had only dreamed of. The book sold fewer than 9,000 copies in hardcover, but it was nominated for a National Book Award and won such champions as Dorothy Parker, William Styron and Tennessee Williams. Suddenly, Yates was heralded - at least in literary circles - as a star.

Around the same time, he had his first mental breakdown, winding up in the men's violence ward at Bellevue - an experience that later inspired the grim opening passages of "Disturbing the Peace." It was the first of several such psychotic episodes. Yates would be heavily medicated the rest of his life (in one typical year, Bailey reports, he was on lithium, Dilantin, Antabuse, Sinequan and Trilafon), but despite doctors' orders, he adamantly refused to cut his alcohol intake. It's difficult to pinpoint, through this fog of drink and drugs and mental imbalance, just what made Yates so erratic and abusive. One must sympathize a little with the friend who wearily protested, "Insanity is no excuse for bad behavior," after he had stormed through her apartment screaming and kicking the furniture.

Insanity - or whatever one chose to call it - would destroy his marriage to Sheila, as it would a second marriage, to Martha Speer, whom he wed in 1968. (They had one daughter, Gina.) By now, there were undeniable echoes of Dookie's financial ineptitude. To earn a paycheck, he had written speeches for Bobby Kennedy, tried his hand at Hollywood screenplays, taught writing at the University of Iowa and Boston University. None of it suited him. His income was sporadic, but Bailey tells us that he never missed a child support payment, and even into their adulthood, he would send his daughters checks with endearing notes enclosed: "I would rather spend an hour on the phone with you than be elected by a landslide." Nothing mattered anymore but the fiction, and even that failed to garner the passionate acclaim of his early work. "It is as if Yates were under some enchantment that compelled him to keep circling the same half- acre of pain," The New York Times said of his 1981 story collection, "Liars in Love."

At the end, Yates somehow found himself at the University of Alabama, of all places. He was a strange, derelict figure in Tuscaloosa, living in a roach-infested apartment, careening about town in a rusty old Mazda, permanently yoked to an oxygen tank and still smoking. His last days are simply heartbreaking: Bailey reveals him alone in his room, rereading the first chapter of "Revolutionary Road" aloud to himself and "crying like a baby," as he confided to a friend. One imagines Yates mourning the success that had eluded him, the love squandered, the books never written; but surely, he also cried with the knowledge that this pitch-perfect, haunting book was his. A month later, in November 1992, he was dead. Neither glamorizing nor condemning Yates, "A Tragic Honesty" gives us one more reason to revisit this singular author and his legacy.

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