|Wrestling Match with Melancholy|
San Francisco Chronicle, Sunday, July 27, 2003
by John Freeman
Richard Yates was the loneliest writer who ever lived.
If there was ever any doubt that sadness was Yates' hair shirt, Blake Bailey's new biography, "A Tragic Honesty" closes the door on that issue.
Yates, this tremendous book reveals, was a titan of melancholy. Toward the end of his life, as Yates courted a woman named Booghie, he wrote: "I've been familiar with loneliness before, many times, and know I'll survive it. If I can't exactly welcome it like an old comrade, at least it's no worse than putting up with a tiresome old acquaintance."
Bailey sets out to understand the roots of this loneliness, and on that account and many others he triumphantly succeeds. It is unlikely that a better biography of Yates will ever be written.
Drawing on scores of letters, interviews, Yates' fiction and frank conversations with one of Yates' psychologists, Bailey depicts a man racked by instability and ambition, generous with writers but stingy with himself -- a man who gave everything for art but received little in return.
Bailey begins in New York, where Yates was born to Vincent and Ruth Yates, a General Electric sales manager and an aspiring sculptor perennially verging on her big break. Vincent tired of this routine and left, so Yates was raised by Ruth, otherwise known as Dookie.
Dookie had fine tastes but lacked the means to support them, which meant the Yateses were constantly dodging eviction. With borrowed money, Dookie moved her children into one posh New York neighborhood after another, where Yates was the only child whose frayed shirt reflected not genteel neglect but poverty.
Yates eventually came to resent his mother's hectic lifestyle, but at the time he adopted a protective attitude toward her. This collusion cost him dearly, Bailey argues, as it forced Yates to learn more about failure than a boy should ever know.
It's easy to overplay the psychological importance of any artist's childhood, and Bailey nearly does so in the book's opening sections. At one point, he writes that Yates' father's "typical function, at least in the later work, is to serve as foil to the selfish, pretentious characters based on Yates' mother."
This is a gross simplification, but Bailey eventually does build a compelling case for how very autobiographical Yates' fiction was. As the book follows Yates to prep school, into the military and back to New York, where he wrote for Remington Rand, nearly every step of the way can be traced in Yates' later fiction.
For a long time, however, Yates resisted the autobiographical urge as simple and weak. This is ironic, given that Yates' hero was Fitzgerald, who drew heavily on personal demons and relationships.
It would take another decade for Yates to produce his classic novel, "Revolutionary Road," as the two banes of his adult life -- alcoholism and bipolar disease -- threw his life into chaos.
During the next 30 years, these afflictions torched two marriages and many friendships. Yates was a proud man, but his stubborn self-neglect forced friends such as poet Grace Schulman and publisher Seymour Lawrence into becoming a 24-hour rescue unit that bailed him out of bar fights and checked him into mental institutions.
What's amazing is that as Yates' drinking and psychotic outbreaks escalated,
he worked harder than ever. Unable to control the tumult of his personal affairs, Yates retreated deeper into writing. Words were something he could control.
But he never entirely dropped out. Yates was a prolific and inspiring teacher. Moving between universities from New York to Wichita, Kan., he taught some of today's finest writers: Tony Earley, Mary Robison, John Casey, Andre Dubus and more.
It's a storytelling success that Bailey can turn Yates' long, slow grind toward obscurity into a fabulous and often hysterical read -- though Yates' colorful character helps things along. This is, after all, a man who threatened to kill Gordon Lish when the editor rejected him.
A four-pack-a-day smoker, Yates was a walking fire hazard. He burned down one apartment, set his beard on fire in a restaurant and spread blizzards of ash wherever he went. Later in life, he sucked from an oxygen tank and continued smoking, causing students to label his car "the bomb on wheels."
The beautiful thing is that Bailey never plays such anecdotes at Yates' expense. Instead, Yates rises up as something he never allowed in his fiction: a hero.
As literary trends boomeranged from postmodernism to minimalism to the
anxious maximalism of the '90s, Yates burrowed into his past and emerged
again and again with powerful, unflinchingly stark fiction. As with the
best literary biographies, "A Tragic Honesty" will not just
help readers understand this important body of work but it will also make
them want to read it. John Freeman's reviews and interviews have appeared
in the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal.
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