Life of `finest forgotten novelist' a Tragic reality

Sun Sentinel, 6/29/03

By Roger K. Miller


Blake Bailey's biography of Richard Yates is as troubling to read as its subject's novels are said to be, and for the same reason: The story is largely bleak, and the main character too often is impossible to like. Yet reading it is also as rewarding as reading the novels because, like those novels, it lays its subject bare with unsparing honesty. Or, as its title has it, "A Tragic Honesty."

Yates' life was a tragedy in the classical sense, in that he was the author of his own unhappy fate. Yates literally paid with his life for his commitment to his vocation. Yates' reputation increasingly rests on his first and best novel, Revolutionary Road, though one of the many services Bailey performs here is showing that Yates' short stories and other novels, especially The Easter Parade and A Good School, deserve greater renown.

But then, so does Yates, whom one British critic called "America's finest forgotten novelist." In writing this biography, Bailey had the active assistance of Yates' family, including his two former wives and his three daughters. He also, it might be said, had the active assistance of Yates' fiction -- somewhat like last year's biography of William Saroyan by John Leggett (who, incidentally, is one of many people who helped Yates at various times) -- because the fiction is baldly autobiographical.

The family's cooperation is as amazing as it is commendable, because it must have been discomforting. Yates, Bailey writes, was "almost a parody of the self-destructive personality: He smoked constantly despite tuberculosis, emphysema, and repeated bouts of pneumonia; he was an alcoholic who, when unable to write, would sometimes start the day with martinis at breakfast; he rarely exercised (indeed he could hardly walk without gasping), and ate red meat at every meal if he could help it." By age 33, he was a "sullen, coughing drunk" and a "mental and physical wreck."

At 34, he had the first of uncountable mental breakdowns, many of them drunken, screaming, hallucinatory rages. He was miserable in almost every department of his life, toward the end of which he was painfully lonely, feeble, living in squalor and nearly destitute, despite the efforts to assist him by scores of people who revered his writing. Shortly before he died in 1992 at 66, he looked, someone said, like "an Ivy League wino."

A former student wondered, understandably, whether it had been worth going through all that misery "for the sake of a line." Yates did it because, like his characters, he could only behave as he must, and so he kept writing, slowly, with a perfectionist's care. His friend Robert Lacy said, "For the Dick Yates I knew, life was always an excuse for writing. He didn't have much of a knack for living." What was it that this wretchedness produced? Merely some of the most piercing insights into the hollowness of American life and a withering exposure of the corrupting effects of self-deception.

"Few, if any, writers can make the reader wince the way Yates can," Bailey says. Yates' good friend Kurt Vonnegut hailed his "harrowingly honest inventory of the meager resources available to middle-class mediocrities."

Well then, if he was so great, why did his books sell so poorly and quickly go out of print? An answer can be found in the saying by his hero, Adlai Stevenson, that Yates often kept on his desk: "Americans have always assumed, subconsciously, that every story will have a happy ending."

Everything Yates wrote went toward countering that sappiness. Bailey's explanation is similar but subtler: "Most people don't like reading about, much less identifying with, mediocre people who evade the truth until it rolls over them. And yet most of us face such a reckoning sooner or later, and few of us are really the brave social mavericks or handsome heedless romantics out of Hemingway or Fitzgerald, who do stay in print."

The writer Andre Dubus said of Yates' refusal to compromise his deterministic vision: "There's just no whore in that man at all."

A Tragic Honesty is an excellent explication and analysis of Yates' life and fiction, which go hand in hand perhaps more than with most authors. A few score of the 600-plus pages of text could be trimmed with no great loss; on the other hand, there is scarcely a detail of Yates' life that is not fascinating. Several of Yates' works are back in print, and Revolutionary Road is approaching what might be called canonical status. Maybe there will be a happy ending for Richard Yates after all.

Roger K. Miller is a freelance writer and reviewer for several publications.
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