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Drinking With Dick Yates.

MARTIN NAPARSTECK.

The North American Review, May-August 2001 p75

I ANSWERED THE PHONE after the fifth or sixth ring. I was sitting close enough to answer it after the first ring, but I thought, with the illogic common to late nights, that maybe if I didn't pick up the damn thing no one would be there. My wife looked at me. It was my job to answer the telephone, not hers, and anyway watching the Bonanza rerun was more her pleasure than mine. A slurred voice on the other end said something I couldn't make out. At first I thought it was someone playing a joke. Who calls after 10 p.m. anyway other than a joker? "I didn't hear you," I said, meaning, I didn't hear you clearly. The voice repeated what it had said; I could recognize just enough to realize I was being told a name, but I couldn't understand it. I did understand by then that the caller was drunk. That, I guessed, helped explain why he was calling so late. "Who is this?" I asked with less annoyance than I intended. There was a pause of three or four seconds, then a gurgling sound, or maybe a sound of a throat being cleared. A sound a drunk would make when he realizes the listener can't understand him.

"This is Dick Yates."

"Who?" I asked before I realized I now understood who was calling. I had written to Richard Yates four or five weeks earlier. Actually, I'd written to his publisher, Seymour Lawrence, asking that my letter be forwarded to Yates.

"Richard Yates," he said. His tone seemed designed to clarify his first name, as if to explain to himself that that must be the reason I didn't understand him.

He repeated his name and said he had received my letter. "Why the fuck they took so long to send it to me, I don't know." Another throat clearing. "Well, you want to interview me, that's OK with me. Do it by telephone or come up here." I wanted to come up there, but I didn't know where up there was. I knew only the address of his publisher. "Up here, up here, Boston, up here."

Dick Yates and I would become friends, or perhaps more accurately, he would become my mentor and he would never learn, once he had been drinking, to hide his annoyance with me.

AUTUMN, 1984, his eighth book, the novel Young Hearts Crying, has just been published, and we meet in The Crossroads, a bar on Beacon Street in Boston's Back Bay. A character in the novel says, "We spent our whole lives yearning; isn't that the God damnedest thing?"

I'm late for the meeting by two hours because the directions Yates gave me are wrong and I end up downtown and have a hard time finding my way back, but when I arrive he's not upset, but I can smell the liquor and I can see it in his face. It's a face that would be handsome if it didn't contain the evidence, lines and sagging skin and tiredness, of decades of drinking. He's tall and slender and he reminds me of drunks who roam up and down East Avenue in Rochester, New York, asking, sometimes demanding, money from anyone dressed in a suit. Right after I sit down the waitress brings him a glass of water and a shot glass filled, I learn later, with Jim Beam, and a bottle of Rolling Rock. He tips the Jim Beam into the water glass, sticks his forefinger in, and stirs.

Because I'm so late the interview doesn't start until the next day, and late the next night, after he has had--I've lost exact count--at least eight or nine Jim Beams and waters and two or three Rolling Rocks, I ask him about the time he spent in Hollywood. I delayed the subject because I knew it was not a happy time. He avoids several of my questions, but when I'm insistent that he tell me something, he leans forward and says, jabbing his forefinger into the table with each word, "I don't want to talk about that fucking time in fucking Hollywood writing for the fucking movies."

I would make four trips to meet with Yates in The Crossroads over the next two years and we would talk on the telephone a dozen times, and three aspects of his personality repeated themselves to me over and over. He drank and drank and drank. When he drank he used the work fucking over and over. Early in a day, before he began his drinking, he was polite and thoughtful and helpful.

THE CROSSROADS was within walking distance of Fenway Park, where he had never been, and of Boston University, where he sometimes taught. For a while he lived in an apartment on Beacon about a block east of The Crossroads, and for a while he lived in a place on Commonwealth, three and a half blocks south, and for a while he lived in a two-room place just above the bar. All the time he did almost all of his drinking in The Crossroads or in the apartments. The Crossroads had a long narrow room with a bar and another long narrow room with booths. He always sat at a booth. The place served large portions of high fat food. He particularly liked the Fisherman's Platter with its fried clams, fried onion rings, fried several other things. The waitresses were friendly, called him Dick, knew he was a writer, but didn't read his books.

On one trip to Boston, my wife and our year-and-a-half-old daughter came along, and Yates invited us up to his Beacon Street apartment. I bent over to pick up the stroller my daughter was in, but he insisted on taking the front end. His place was on the second floor, and between the outside steps, maybe eight or ten of them, and the inside flight, he was puffing heavily by the time we reached his door. He smoked about as heavily as he drank.

Once my wife and I insisted he join us for dinner at a restaurant my wife wanted to visit on Bunker Hill. He pulled out the chair for Ruth to sit in, talked to my daughter, America, told her how pretty she was, told us he thought George Washington really had eaten in this place, asked me if we planned to see the Red Sox before we left town. He had green spaghetti and one glass of red wine, and later Ruth told me how charming she thought he was. I agreed.

Once, in his apartment above The Crossroads he filled a 10-ounce glass to the brim with Jim Beam and handed it to me. He filled another for himself. He finished his in about ten minutes, and I had taken only two sips from mine. He got up and filled his glass again, asked me if I wanted more, and when I said no, he sat down. By the time he was filling his glass the third time, he snapped at me. "What's wrong with your drink? Want some fucking ice?" A half hour later he went into the bathroom, kept the door open, I heard his piss hit the bowl's water, and I got up and walked to the kitchen sink, poured all but about an ounce of my whiskey into the sink, and sat down.

When he came out of the bathroom, zipping himself up as he did, I took a sip from my glass. The idea was to make it easy for him to think I had been drinking. Drunks feel insulted if you don't drink with them, as if your abstinence is a slap in the face. He looked at me, squinted, said, "You need more," walked to the kitchen counter, picked up the bottle of Jim Beam, walked over to me, poured whiskey into my glass, and when the bottle was drained empty before my glass was half full I felt relief, but he just walked back to the kitchen, reached above the sink, opened a cabinet, took out another bottle of Jim Beam, took off the cap, walked back to me, filled my glass, overfilled it so some spilled on my trousers, and he then walked to the table that held his two-thirds full glass, filled it to the top, over-filled it so some spilled on the table, put the cap on the bottle, walked to the kitchen, put the bottle on the counter. He picked up the empty bottle, stepped over to the trash can in front of the sink, put his foot out to step on the lever that would make the top pop up, missed, stabbed at it again with his toe, missed again, stabbed one more time, missed one more time, said, "Fuck, fuck, fuck," and smacked the bottle hard enough down on the counter to leave me surprised that it didn't break.

HE LIKED TO TALK to me about particular stories that were favorites of his. He asked me if I had ever read "The Eighty-Yard Run" by Irwin Shaw. I said no. He outlined it for me. It's about a man and woman who meet in college and the man is more interested in the woman than she is in him, but when she sees him return a kickoff for an 80-yard touchdown during a scrimmage, she changes her mind, they date, end up getting married, and their marriage is unhappy. At one point she tries to explain modern art to him, but he says he likes pictures with horses in them. It's a poignant and pregnant scene. The story, Yates says, is about two good people who never should have married each other. I had asked him about "The Best of Everything," one of his stories, about a young couple who are about to get married, and the night before the wedding, the woman tries to seduce the man by, among other things, offering him wine, but he asks for beer instead. It's a poignant and pregnant scene. I had told him, it's a story about two good and decent people who just never should be married. And he had said, "Did you ever read `The Eighty-Yard Run'?"

I asked him about a scene in his novel The Easter Parade and h asked me if I ever read Irwin Shaw's "The Girls in Their Summer Dresses." I'd mention this story or that scene and he'd ask me if I had read such and such by Hemingway, Madame Bovary by Flaubert. Salinger. Dostoyevsky.

Once I walked into The Crossroads and without saying hello he said, "Did you read that new story by Tim O'Brien in the new Esquire?"

I had. "The Things They Carried."

"Isn't that fucking something?" It was the only time I heard him use the word fucking in a positive way. A thousand times he used it some other way.

Once I mentioned Faulkner, and he said, "Fucking Faulkner didn't check a dictionary often enough."

He was a slow reader. A slow writer. He said he woke at 4 a.m., wrote for eight hours, and if he had four or five hundred words at the end of the work day he thought it was a good day. William Grove, the protagonist in A Good School, is afraid he isn't very bright because he reads so slowly. Yates's protagonists tend to think of themselves as witty, but never as intelligent. The first time I was in one of the three apartments he lived in in Boston, I was surprised by how few books he had. A single bookcase full, four shelves, maybe three feet wide. Mostly paperbacks, a few hardcovers. William Kennedy's Ironweed was on its side on top, as if it had been read recently.

So few books might be attributed to moving frequently. But part of it, no doubt, was a result of a common trait among readers, keeping only those books you read, much like a big-game hunter displaying his trophies. Yates simply didn't read fast enough to accumulate many books. His was a literary life, but it was a life that was both difficult and unpleasant. Writing did not make him happy. Nor did reading.

FRANK WHEELER in Revolutionary Road. Emily Grimes in The Easter Parade. Warren Matthews in "Liars in Love." All of Yates's most autobiographical characters drink too much. John Wilder in Disturbing the Peace. This one is about drinking too much. About being institutionalized for drinking, about going to psychiatrists, about going to AA meetings, about Wilder embarrassing himself in public places. Yates writes about Wilder, "To find order in chaos--why, of course; that was what he'd wanted all his life."

Chronicler of disappointed lives. I learned that Yates died when I read his obituary in The New York Times on November 9, 1992. He had been teaching at the University of Alabama and he died in the Veterans Administration hospital in Birmingham. He was 66. The obit quoted his daughter Monica as saying he had stopped smoking a year earlier. The lead sentence said he wrote "novels about self-deception, disappointment and grief." He had died the previous Saturday. The headline called him a "Chronicler of Disappointed Lives." He wrote, always, about himself.

When I met with him at The Crossroads the first time, he told me he was working on a book about a speech writer for Bobby Kennedy. When he died eight years later, he was still working on the book. He had been, briefly, a speech writer for Bobby Kennedy, as is a secondary character in Disturbing the Peace.

When he told me stories late at night, after he had his first four or five or six drinks, I couldn't be certain of their accuracy. They certainly told the truth, the way fiction tells the truth. But maybe the facts weren't quite accurate. He told me this story about being a speech writer for Bobby Kennedy:

In the early 1960s Bobby Kennedy called up William Styron and asked him if he wanted to be his speech writer. Styron said no, but he knew this other writer, Richard Yates, who would be great for the job. Styron and Yates knew each other because Yates had been hired by film director John Frankenheimer to write the script for Lie Down in Darkness, Styron's first novel. Somebody in Kennedy's office called Yates, offered him the job, the title would be special assistant to the attorney general, and Yates accepted. He had the job from early 1963 until November. The two men met briefly when Yates started the job, but Kennedy, who had a moralistic strain, was offended by Yates's drinking. So for nine months Yates wrote Kennedy's speeches. Bobby Kennedy got the loudest applause of his career giving those speeches, Yates told me. One time on an airplane Kennedy sat down next to Yates and complimented him on the speeches he wrote. That was the only time Kennedy actually talked to Yates. When the attorney general's brother was killed in Dallas, high ranking members of the administration were expected to offer their resignations so the new president, Lyndon Johnson, could put together his own team; Johnson of course asked most of Kennedy's team to stay. The same thing happened in the attorney general's office. Almost everyone was asked to stay. Yates wasn't. It was the drinking. He was still bitter about that when I talked to him about it two decades later. He leaned across the table in The Crossroads, lowered his voice, shaped his mouth so it resembled a snarl, and asked me, "The Kennedys have four hundred fucking million dollars. Did you know that?"

He told me another story, a related story, also late that same night: John Frankenheimer's original plan for Lie Down in Darkness was to have Henry Fonda play the father and Natalie Wood play the daughter. Wood at first indicated a strong interest, but she had a lot of offers for a lot of roles, and she turned this one down. Frankenheimer then had an idea. Why couldn't Jane Fonda play the role? The problem with that, of course, is that Lie Down in Darkness is about incest and contains a scene in which the father and daughter passionately kiss. When Henry Fonda was informed of Frankenheimer's idea, Henry was outraged and withdrew from the project. Yates, in telling me this story, used a cliche to explain what happened next. "Hollywood is a small town," he said. No-name actors wanted to work on this particular project with crazy Frankenheimer; the people who were going to put up the money changed their minds. Frankenheimer's plan to have Henry passionately kiss Jane on screen ruined Yates's Hollywood career; at least, that's what Yates told me, with a shrug and a sad smile.

But he had an addendum. He told me how pretty Natalie Wood was in person, how sad her death by drowning was. He told me he met her at a party and she sought him out and apologized. She said if she hadn't pulled out of the project, the movie would have been made and Yates's career in Hollywood would have been very different. Lie Down in Darkness has still not been made into a movie.

HE SOMETIMES INSISTED on reading things I'd written. Manuscripts of unpublished stories, one of an unpublished novel. He would mark them up in pencil, and sit across a booth in The Crossroads and read his notations to me. He said he liked the way I ended stories. "The perfect ending is both inevitable and a surprise," he told me. "You almost got it."

Once, in the late 80s, he asked me how old I was. I was in my late 40s. His face snagged a bit. "I would have guessed you at about thirty-five," he said. "I thought I was just about the same age as your father." At the time he was about 60.

My father died when I was 15, and I can never remember him having more than one drink at a time. Usually when we were visiting someone else's house. I never remember beer or wine in the refrigerator, hard liquor in the cupboard. We had alcohol in the house only if there was a party. Most people at those parties drank beer and usually stopped after two or three.

I've been drunk twice in my life, once in my late teens at a party in the Poconos, where I was working for the summer as a waiter, and once in my late twenties, at a party at the home of an editor for a newspaper in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where I was a reporter. Years will pass between times when I have more than three beers in a day; years will pass between times when I have beer more than two days in the same week; more than a decade has passed since I last had whiskey; I drink wine only at someone else's dinner table. Drinking has just not been a part of my life the same way it was of Yates's.

I wondered for a long time if he was telling me that night, early in the evening, that he saw me as sort of a son. He had three daughters, no sons. He advised me not to write about the death of my son. It would be too painful, he said. He advised me not to let my marriage crumble, as he sensed it would. He asked me several times to tell him about playing on the college baseball team, and each time he talked ruefully about his lack of talent as an athlete.

The last time I went to The Crossroads to see him, in September, 1986, I was early. A waitress came up to my booth and asked if I wanted to eat. I said I was waiting for a friend but would have a cup of coffee until he came. She brought it to me and we chatted for about a minute. I was wearing shorts and she looked at my legs and asked if I did bicycling, and I said I did, a lot. She said she did too, and she lifted her already short shorts an inch or so to show me her legs. In about ten minutes, Yates came, and sat down, and when the waitress came back, she put her hand on his shoulder and looked at me and asked, "Why didn't you tell me this was your friend." She was slender with great legs, but her face wasn't pretty. Her nose seemed pushed in, her cheekbones non-existent, her mouth excessively small. She would come back to our booth as Yates and I ate dinner. We both had Fisherman's Platters. The waitress was unusually attentive, refilling my coffee, bringing Yates another Jim Beam and water before he asked for one, trying, unsuccessfully to talk us into having desert. As she walked away, Yates leaned over and watched for a few seconds, then looked at me. "She has a great ass, doesn't she." I nodded. He added, "Too bad about her face." Quickly, as if to atone for his remark, he said, "But she's very nice."

He told me he had to go someplace for about an hour but that I should meet him later in his apartment, upstairs. When he left, the waitress came over and asked me where he went. I told her. She asked me how I knew him. I said I had written an article about him. She said she had read all his books and loved them. "I feel sorry for him, the way he drinks all the time," she said, "just like his characters." She added, "Have you read his latest novel yet?" No, I hadn't. Then she said, "Look, I work until about midnight. Would you like to get a cup of coffee or something then?" She shrugged. I smiled and said I would.

Later, in Yates's apartment, he gave me a copy of his new novel, Cold Spring Harbor, and he wrote in the front. My name, then "A good writer, a good man, a good husband and father. With best wishes always." When I left the apartment, after 11 p.m., I went back to The Crossroads. I wasn't certain exactly what I wanted. Just a cup of coffee with the waitress. My wife didn't make this trip to Boston. I think we both knew then that our marriage was close to being over. But I was still married. The waitress brought me a cup of coffee and when I started to give her money, she said no, it was on her. She mentioned several places we might go when she got off. An all-night restaurant. She asked me where I was staying. I told her the name of the hotel. She said there were some nice places near there. She put her hand on top of mine and said she'd be right back. She checked on customers in other booths. When she came back, she looked at my copy of Cold Spring Harbor. "Is that Dick's new book?" I nodded. "You mind if I look at it," she said as she picked it up. She flipped through a few pages, something caught her eye, and she went back to the beginning, read the inscription. She put the book down, looked at me, walked away to the station where waitresses got water and coffee, stood there a few minutes, alone, turned and came back to me. She said, "I won't be able to get coffee with you tonight," and walked away.

A few months later Yates called me. We chatted, and he asked, "That waitress, the last time you were here, whatever happened? I thought she was interested in you."

"She read what you wrote, the inscription in your book, about me being a good husband." I laughed. "Well, Dick, you screwed that one up for me."

He laughed. "Why do you think I wrote it?"

RICHARD YATES WAS a chronicler of disappointed lives. Of ruined lives. Drinking ruined his life. Broke up two marriages. Damaged every friendship he ever had. Separated him for a long time from his daughters. Yet, if he did not drink, he would not have been Richard Yates, chronicler of disappointed lives. His drinking ruined him, but his drinking was absolutely necessary to his writing. He was, as a writer, not an observer of other people. He always looked inward.

I once asked him about the opening scene in a story he wrote, "Builders." The narrator remembers a time when men wore hats when they went out and he recalls on one occasion when he was wearing a "much handled brown fedora." But back then, he says, he would have called it a battered hat. "That was before I knew about honesty in the use of words." He liked that phrase. He liked that I remembered it. Honesty in the use of words. I've never taught a writing course since then without mentioning that phrase.

But a writer needs something to be honest about. If Yates had been a moderate drinker, I think, the things he had to be honest about would have been lesser things. His drinking, his disappointed life, saved his writing.

MARTIN NAPARSTECK has published two novels, War Song and A Hero's Welcome, and more than 30 short stories. He is the book reviewer for the Salt Lake Tribune and lives in Rochester, New York.

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