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Drinking With Dick Yates.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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