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Follow the long and revolutionary road.
THE INDEPENDENT, Saturday 21, November 1992
Eventually I tracked Richard Yates down in Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama, where he taught briefly last year. I called him from my brother's apartment in Chicago.
"Oh, thank you for remembering," he said. His voice was gravelly,
and he breathed with difficulty. "I've been ill, you see, and I may go
into the VA hospital shortly, but I'd really like to do this, I really would."
The following day I called him again. He had just learnt that his minor
surgery was to be postponed for a few more weeks. This would permit a meeting.
I drove south, arriving in Tuscaloosa on Columbus's quincentennial, and
Yates met me at the door of his bungalow apartment. He was tall, greying,
slightly stooped and extremely cordial. For 10 years he had been suffering
from emphysema, and recently the condition had grown critical. He was wearing
a thin, semi-translucent green tube attached to his nostrils; the tube leashed
him to a "Companion" brand oxygen condenser which he kept hidden
away in the bedroom.
"It's not much of a place," Yates said. "But it's okay, I
guess. Just for somewhere to hole up and finish my book."
It was a two-bedroom apartment with one bedroom converted into an office.
Framed photos of Yates's three daughters were hanging on the main wall - Monica
and Sharon, from Yates's first marriage, and Gina, from his second. (Both
of these marriages, like the marriage of Yates's own parents when he was two
years old, ended in divorce)
The only room with any real life in it was Yates's office, whre a set of
desk units were covered with scrawled, type-written manuscripts. There was
a large electric typewriter and a quotation from Adlai Stevenson taped to
one wall. Yates was working on his eighth novel, which was going to be based
on his experiences as Bobby Kennedy's speech-writer in 1962. It was long overdue.
"What I'm working on isn't really a very big book," he explained,
almost with an air of apology, "but it's a very complicated one. I've
been at work on it for six years, but of course this has slowed me down."
He indicated the lengthy green tube that disappeared into the humming bedroom,
but his loose, long-limbed gesture seemed to include a lot more - his life,
his career, and his dull, leafy suburb of Tuscaloosa. "It's okay to hole
up in to write, I guess," he said, "but I sure as hell don't want
to die here. It's Dixie."
There's a lot out there, his gesture indicated, a lot out there that makes
it hard to write these days. "I don't breathe too well," he said.
"So all the oxygen doesn't get to my brain. I used to be able to write
seven or eight hours a day. Now I can manage one or two, at best."
Yates's books are extremely emotional and not easily summarized. Nor does
it fit into any of the convenient critical categories: though usually described
as a "realist", he himself hated the term. "All fiction is
filled with technique," he complained. "It's ridiculous to suggest
one technique is any more realistic than any other."
Yates's first novel, 'Revolutionary Road', appeared in 1961 to generous
reviews and disappointing sales. It's about the generation Americans who,
like Yates himself, emerged from the Second World War steeped in the illusions
of Forties cinema and wartime propaganda about a glorious small-town America
that never was: Mom and Dad and the kids, with an irascible grandparent or
two thrown in around the fire. As in billboard advertising or television sitcoms
during the Fifties, it's a family in which Mom solves all the problems with
a faint, efficient smile of amusement, and where Dad blunders ineffectively
around the house and garden with his tools and gardening shears, never quite
figuring out what those darn fool kids are on about. The kids, meanwhile,
love Mom and Dad, sure, "but it's just like, jeez, Betty. They're so
Frank and April Wheeler, the protagonists of 'Revolutionary Road', are terrified
they may actually belong in this place. They want to get out into Europe to
"find themselves" - if they don't leave right away, they might become
just another part of what April calls "this enormous delusion - because
that's what it is, an enormous obscene delusion - this idea that we have to
resign from real life and 'settle down'. It's the great sentimental lie of
Like Frank and April, Yates abhorred sentimentality - in both his life and
his fiction. He was also irritated by the convenient tags and labels that
people were quick to attach to his own work. "It always struck me as
a little too slick," he said. And for the next hour or two, whenever
I asked him any "slick" questions, he shied away as if embarrassed.
"You're giving me too much at once," he said, with a shrug. Or:
"I guess I'm just not smart enough to answer big questions about things
like 'themes' or 'purposes' in my work."
The only aspect of his work Yates did seem inclined to discuss was his own
disappointment with what he calls his "poor production". I asked
him if he was happy about how his career had developed, and he replied, "Oh
no, no, no. I should have written much more, about twice as many books as
I have. But I had various problems over the years - periods of being blocked,
having to do so many other things to make a living and so on, teaching creative
writing courses, or writing in Hollywood".
Despite the critical success of both 'Revolutionary Road' and Yates's subsequent
1962 collection of stories, 'Eleven Kinds of Loneliness', he never made a
living at his fiction until the mid-Seventies, when his long-time "roving
editor," Seymour Lawrence, put him on a monthly salary. It enabled Yates
to produce six excellent books over a period of about 11 years. But by the
time of his energetic return to form in the mid-Seventies, Yates had already
been dismissed by the critics as a sort of "one-shot wonder". There
was a long, painful lapse between 'Revolutionary Road' and his second novel,
'A Special Providence'. "I don't know what happened. It was the second
novel thing, I guess. That book took seven years, and it had to be torn out
of me." Yates's third novel, 'Disturbing the Peac'e, didn't appear until
Yates seemed more interested, sitting there in his home that day, in asking
questions than answering them. Where I had got my University of Chicago T-shirt,
or what my brother did for a living, or where I was born, or where I was going
next. Finally we broke for lunch, and there was something dimly Yatesian about
how the rest of the afternoon developed - a constant slippage between intentions
At the door of his apartment Yates took a good deep breath and walked quickly
to his car parked at the kerb, where he hooked himself up to a large steel
canister in the front seat. The car was littered with newpapers and food wrappers.
I climbed in beside the canister. After adjusting his oxygen, Yates drove
past the wide malls and shopping plazas of Tuscaloosa to a steak house, the
sort of plate his characters call a "nice" or a "decent place",
which means it's pleasant but affordable.
When we arrived, though, the restaurant was just closing, so we were forced
to take second best - a large, vulgarly tasteful air-conditioned franchise
restaurant called The Red Lobster. Yates attached his oxygen canister to a
portable dolley and wheeled it with us into the restaurant. Over our beers
we looked over the menus to see if they had steaks.
"Yeah, here they are," Yates said. "But they've only got
the New York cut. That's way too big for me."
"So order it," I said. "This is on The Independent. Let's
"Oh no, it would be such a waste."
"You could take it home."
"You always say you'll take it home. But you always end up throwing
We sank into the sort of transient, indefinite gloom which often infects
"I'll tell you what," I said. "You order the steak, and then
the part you don't eat, we'll throw it out on the freeway on our way home."
Yates ordered the chicken; I ordered a salad. We drank our beers and talked
about the writers we both liked - Canada's Alice Munro, or Salinger and Fitzgerald
("If there wasn't a Fitzgerald," Yates said, "I don't think
I would have become a writer.")
We were starting to relax and enjoy our "nice" meal. It was like
the moments in Yates's stories when his characters stop fantasising about
romantic possibilities and start taking things as they are.
"You know," Yates said, halfway through our lunch, "This
place isn't bad for a franchise restaurant."
When we drove back he was exhausted. I thanked him for his time. We had
one more quick beer, then shook hands.
"It was very, well, enjoyable," he said, showing the sort of care
with which he has selected virtually every single word of his published prose.
Not a "great" afternoon. Not even "exciting" or "funny"
or "wonderful". But "enjoyable", yes. It was very, well,
What Yates and many of his characters hate about the American "dream"
of suburban fulfillment is its delusory, foamy blur. There's something about
all the hum and buzz of advertising and movies, all those bright promises
of the Best, the Greatest and Most Beautiful and the Love that Lasts Forever,
which obscures and occludes the real and deeply-felt lives of our own hearts
and muscles and lungs.
As Shep Campbell realizes at the end of 'Revolutionary Road', while contemplating
his private grief over the death of April Wheeler: "The whole point of
crying was to quit before you cornied it up. The whole point of grief itself
was to cut it out while it was still honest, while it still meant something.
Because the thing was so easily corrupted: Let yourself go and you started
embellishing your own sobs, or you started telling about the Wheelers with
a sad, sentimental smile and saying Frank Wheeler was courageous, and then
what the hell did you have?"
After meeting a writer of Yates's talent and integrity, a man who never
wrote a scene which didn't at least make a brave attempt at honesty, it was
easy to think of him as "tragic", or "neglected", or as
someone "who never lived up to his potential". But after all those
"slick" observations are exhausted, the facts remain: he wrote some
of the best fiction of his generation; it continues to give pleasure to all
those readers who are fortunate enough to discover it.
Three weeks after the interview, Richard Yates died in Birmingham's Veteran's Hospital, Tuscaloosa; emphysema, along with complications from the minor surgery that had been postponed. He was 66 years old. Remembering our afternoon in the light of that news, I do feel one slightly sentimental regret - even though I can hear Yates's voice in the back of my mind, warning me not to express it ("Just tell what happened, and what you saw, and be done with it. And don't schmaltz it up with a lot of personal feeling, for God's sake"). I can live with the uncomprehending publishers, the dumb reviews of his work, the dull place he ended up in, even the second-rate restaurant and the slow, awkward circuit around the driveway we made three or four times before Yates could find the exit on to the main road. I wouldn't want to change any of it because it was all enjoyable, really, a good day all in all, except for one little thing. I wish he'd ordered the goddamn steak.
In the following lines from 'Revolutionary Road' (1961) by Richard Yates,
April and Frank Wheeler talk things through.
"Haven't I made it clear," she said, "that I don't particularly
want to talk about it?"
"Okay," he said. "Okay. Jesus, April. I'm trying as hard
as I can to be nice about this thing, but I -"
"How kind of you," she said. "How terribly, terribly kind
"Wait a minute," he pulled the hand from his pocket and stood
straight, but then he put it back because other cars were coming. "Listen
a minute." He tried to swallow but his throat was very dry. "I don't
know what you're trying to prove here," he said, "and frankly I
don't think you do either. But I do know one thing. I know damn well I don't
"You're always so wonderfully definite, aren't you," she said,
"on the subject of what you do and don't deserve." She swept past
him and walked back to the car.
Now, wait a minute!" He was stumbling after her in the weeds. Other
cars were rushing past now, both ways, but he'd stopped caring. "Wait
a minute, God damn it!"
She leaned the backs of her thighs against the fender and folded her arms
in an elaborate display of resignation while he jabbed and shook a forefinger
in her face.
"You listen to me. This is one time you're not going to get away with
"Oh God, if only you'd stayed home tonight."
"You know what you are when you're like this? You're sick. I really
"And do you know what you are?" Her eyes raked him up and down.
Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into each other's weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other's strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint and strike again. In the space of a gasp for breath it sent their memories racing back over the years for old weapons to rip the scabs off old wounds; it went on and on.'