Portrait of the Artist as Inspiration, Friend

The Boston Globe, 7/13/2003

By Dan Wakefield,

When I came back to Boston from Hollywood in 1980, one of the first old friends I looked up was Richard Yates. After 21/2 years of working in television and movies, I was sick of pictures, pitch meetings, and writing that didn't go all the way across the page. I needed resuscitation by literature, and Yates, the author of novels like ''Revolutionary Road'' and ''The Easter Parade'' and stories like those collected in ''Liars in Love,'' was a literary purist, astutely labeled by Esquire as ''the least famous of America's great writers.'' Yates was also a survivor of the LaLa Land meat grinder, and a sympathetic drinking companion. We soon established a ritual of dinner every Friday night at the Crossroads Irish Pub on Beacon Street, which was not only Yates's hangout, but virtually his home.

In his constant uniform of 1950s Ivy League propriety (blue blazer, gray flannel slacks, button-down shirt with rep tie), the tall, gaunt Yates, with his gray hair and beard and sallow, sunken-cheeked face lighted by blue eyes that could literally sparkle with passionate opinion, could pass for one of Dostoevsky's madman-prince-genius characters. I have heard of military commanders who vowed at the start of a war they would not take off their uniform till their army had triumphed. Yates must have vowed he would not take off his blazer and flannels until he had written the Great American Novel.

He sat across from me in his favorite booth at the Crossroads, drinking the beer and bourbon he poured in like fuel (food was incidental), chain-smoking the cigarettes that gave his voice a rasp and rending cough (and later toting the oxygen tanks he had to carry for the emphysema he died from), and rattling out incisive appraisals of books and writers he loved and those he felt were ''phony'' or overrated.

His lips would make a smacking sound and he would point one of his long, bony fingers toward me as he launched into one of his favorite diatribes, which began ''Once every seven years, Wakefield'' - here he would lean forward as if disclosing a terrible truth - ''a really phony book will get hyped and overpraised and the critics and public will fall for it.'' I would start to smile as he flashed a trademark wink at me to conclude ''And the last one was `The World According to Garp.''' I would helplessly, shamefully, burst into booze-inspired laughter in our shared prejudice. I likewise could crack up Yates by repeating Tom Wolfe's definition of hell: going on a bus ride across America with nothing to read but ''Mr. Sammler's Planet.''

With equal fervor Yates gave me the gleeful wink and the pointed finger to herald a pronouncement of praise for writers he admired like William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut, Andre Dubus and Mary Robison, or a promising student he'd discovered in one of his classes at Boston University. He took delight in encouraging and nurturing talent he felt was genuine, and many of his former students credit his kindness and advice for their own blossoming.

We provided mutual commiseration when our own work was bashed by some hostile critic, as Yates was habitually skewered by his former friend and onetime rival for the girls of Greenwich Village, Anatole Broyard. Broyard took the publication of Yates's novel ''Young Hearts Crying'' as occasion for trashing not only that book but Yates's entire oeuvre in a full-page notice in The New York Times.

I agreed wholeheartedly with Yates's idea that reviewers should be identified by their relationship to the author and his work - so instead of saying Broyard was a regular reviewer for the Times, the identification should say ''The reviewer once lost out to the author for the affection of a woman,'' perhaps adding ''The reviewer was never able to complete his own novel.'' Joining Yates in his anger over Broyard's author-bashing (both of us stoking our rage with booze), I pledged to accompany him the next day to ''beat the hell out of'' the reviewer, a ''plan'' exposed in the sober light of morning as ludicrous for its practical as well as its ethical stupidity. Two such hapless physical specimens as Yates and I could hardly have subdued a healthy chihuahua.

As I decompressed from the Hollywood years I got into a program of diet and exercise, and broke my drinking habit. Instead of ordering my customary half carafe of house wine before my dinner with Yates, I broke tradition one night by asking for a Diet Coke. Yates's eyes widened with shock and dismay as he roared, ''Diet Coke? You're having a Diet Coke?'' When I confirmed this travesty, Yates smacked his lips and announced to the waiter, ''And then he's going home and cut out paper dolls!''

The frequency of our dinners declined along with the decline of my drinking, but I never lost my affection for Yates or appreciation of his work. Ironically, as is often the case, the work gained stature when the author died. Plaudits and republications that would have delighted him (and helped to feed him) continue to accumulate since his death in 1992, at age 66. Yates did not get a lot of breaks in his life, but I am happy to report he's been blessed with the most precious posthumous gift a writer can receive: a splendid biography.

Blake Bailey's retelling of Yates's life is as good a biography of a contemporary writer as I have read. An admirer of his subject's work, Bailey writes with respect and understanding of the often troubled life, scarred by alcoholism that led to epilepsy and frequent hospitalizations, broken marriages, and the kind of personal chaos Yates portrayed so well in his harrowing novel ''Disturbing the Peace.''

His fiction and his life were so intertwined that this biography of Yates reads almost like one of his own novels. The goodness and integrity of the man shine through his darkness, in his love of his daughters, his generosity of time and even what little money he made for his family, his dogged refusal to let rejection deter him from his path, and his total dedication to his art, which was the essence of his life, his reason to be.

Yates himself could not have written a more bittersweet end to a story than the culmination of his lifelong obsession to be published in The New Yorker. After 30 years of ''shamelessly teasing me with encouragement,'' fiction editor Roger Angell wrote Yates's agent that ''his kind of fiction is not what we're looking for. '' That is, until Yates died, when they published an early story of his they had rejected in 1952. On hearing this news, Yates's daughter Sharon went to the basement, where her father's ashes still rested in a box, pending a family decision on where to disperse them. She gave the box of ashes a shake and said, ''Way to go, Dad.''

This story ran on page H6 of the Boston Globe on 7/13/2003.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.