By Stewart O'Nan
The Journal News, June 29, 2003
For years, as Esquire pointed out, Richard Yates was the best writer
in America no one ever read. Untrue, of course, since his fellow writers
were devotees, from Vonnegut and Styron to Ann Beattie and Gina Berriault
to Richard Ford and Richard Russo. Now, 11 years after his death, the
Yates resurgence his fans long predicted has actually happened. After
the triumph of his "Collected Stories," publishers are rushing
his novels back into print, and casual readers and students of literature
alike are getting a taste of this American master. Like his idol Fitzgerald,
Yates is enjoying success after decades of neglect, and while Yates' work
is far more consistent than Fitzgerald's, for a reader just discovering
him, it's best to start with the masterpieces.
Yates has three. The book most Yates fans will point you to is his first,
the novel "Revolutionary Road." A sensation when it appeared
in 1961, it was a finalist for the national Book Award along with "Catch-22"
and "The Moviegoer."
In "Revolutionary Road," as in all his work, Yates' subject
is disappointment, the bitterness that follows our losses, and often our
complicity in those failures, our most cherished ideals leading us astray.
Maybe the first great suburban novel (easily predating Updike), this tale
of the dreams and frustrations of an unexceptional young couple who desperately
want to be exceptional is both tender and scathing. Frank and April Wheeler
are touchingly normal in their needs and fears, and Yates is brilliant
in limning the discrepancies between their everyday lives and the
Exerpt from "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates",
by Blake Bailey
In this excerpt from Blake Bailey's "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and
Work of Richard Yates," Yates is working on his great triumph, the
novel "Revolutionary Road," and receives his first acclaim for
his short stories. But there are early indications of the demons and unhappiness
he would battle the rest of his life, as well.
In the summer of 1956 the Yateses moved to the rural town of Mahopac in
Putnam County, N.Y., where they lived on a private estate called Babaril.
The pink stucco cottage they rented was arguably a step or two down from
their sturdy little ranch house in Redding, but the new home possessed
a sort of forlorn charm. The ground floor consisted of a low-ceilinged
living room, dining room, and kitchen (Yates could hardly stand up straight),
with two small bedrooms upstairs, the larger of which opened onto a narrow
balcony with a spiral staircase leading to the flagstones below. The balcony
was a picturesque feature (the French doors beneath it were another),
though it was liable to collapse if anyone actually stood on it. It gave
the impression of being held up by vines, as did the rest of the place,
which resembled a kind of dilapidated Hollywood dollhouse; the Lilliputian
perspective was enhanced by an adjacent hut where drunken guests could,
in a pinch, spend the night. The hut had a tiny fireplace that couldn't
be used without igniting the willow tree just above its tiny chimney.
Their landlady was an aging actress named Jill Miller, who with her vanished
husband had founded the Putnam County Playhouse, a once prestigious summer
stock theater in its last stages of desuetude. Near the main house was
a largely abandoned dormitory for actors, an annex of which was occupied
by a local family named Jones. Around the 100-acre estate were overgrown
gardens and crumbling cottages and a weedy old tennis court, but the feature
that appealed most to Yates the clincher in fact was a five-by-eight
wellhouse at the end of a long winding path. With his landlady's blessing,
Yates installed a table, chair, typewriter and kerosene stove, and wrote
most of "Revolutionary Road" there.
In keeping with their old dynamic, Yates relished his quirky new venue
almost as much as Sheila despised it. "It was the antithesis of Redding,"
she said, "so Dick thought it was great. But everything had gone
to seed. It was a sad place owned by a sad lady." Naturally Sheila
tried to make the best of things, and perhaps it was fortunate that she
could rarely be idle, as her hands were full keeping their cottage in
some sort of habitable order. In the summer the cellar flooded regularly,
and the roof seemed to leak even when the sun was out. Sheila attended
to the caulking and draining and other proprietary chores, while Yates
tended to lie low in the wellhouse.
Winters were ghastly cold and the cottage was poorly heated, caulking
or no, but at least the bizarre, shifting crowd of summer colonists thinned.
The writer Edward Hoagland, who befriended the Yateses around this time,
described Babaril as "a place for people at loose ends"
offhand he recalled such tenants as a reclusive Hallmark artist and a
man in the middle of a bitter divorce who worked out his anger by firing
Much of this was made bearable for Sheila by the fact that she was pregnant
again. It gave her something to look forward to, creaky marriage withal.
Sharon had long wanted a sibling, and now that her only immediate playmates
were the rowdy Jones children, the matter could no longer wait. And Yates
was happy to oblige; Mahopac was a hick town little more than a
laundromat, bank and ice-cream parlor and he too wanted Mussy to
have company other than the Joneses or whatever urchins she met at school.
Besides, he was hoping to add a boy to the family (for the sake of novelty
and moral support, perhaps), but it wasn't to be. Monica Jane was born
on April 10, 1957, and when the nurse told Yates he had another daughter,
he was surprised to find that he "felt like a million dollars"
(as he later wrote a friend): "You can pick up girls and hug and
kiss them any time you feel like it, until they get too heavy too lift
that's one advantage; another is that they never expect you to
teach them how to throw."
Among the first to congratulate him was Sam Lawrence; that done, Lawrence
briskly reaffirmed his great confidence in Yates' novel-in-progress: "(Y)our
best (work has) always indicated the gifts of a natural writer. There
are so many writers today who don't have that unmistakable quality."
Yates needed the encouragement. When he wasn't gouging away at his novel
between long despondent fortnights lost to PR work, he was trying to stay
in the public eye as a fiction writer by reworking a few of his more promising
stories. The revised "B.A.R. Man" was now being tried on such
magazines as Swank, Bachelor, Gentry and Nugget, none of whose editors
chose to introduce Yates to their special readership. Esquire sniffed
that they'd "gotten away a bit from women-hating stories like the
BAR man one," and also rejected (again) "A Really Good Jazz
Piano" and "Evening on the Cote d'Azur."...
Yates was taking things hard. Two years had passed since he started his
novel, and a satisfactory draft was nowhere in sight; at this rate he'd
never be able to support himself as a fiction writer, yet he could hardly
bear the thought of indefinite hacking for Remington Rand. The future
looked grim, and Yates behaved accordingly. For most of his adult life
he'd been a beer drinker who limited himself to the occasional binge,
but now he routinely drank almost a fifth of bourbon a day. At his worst
Yates was like one of his own characters facing the terrible truth of
his limitations: He'd bemoan his lack of progress to anybody who cared
to listen, or else lapse into loud opinionated rants on some elusive general
theme, or simply fall over the furniture. He also began vomiting in the
morning. At first Sheila assumed the obvious, but in fact drinking was
only a general factor. For most of his life from Mahopac on, even in times
of relative sobriety, Yates' pulmonary health was such that he'd never
again know what it was like to feel good when he started the day. Sometimes
the hacking and vomiting would go onfor hours before his lungs were clear
enough to light a cigarette and get on with his work.
"From the time Monica was born," said Sheila, "I knew the
marriage was going down the tubes." When work had gone poorly at
the wellhouse, Yates would stalk back to the cottage in a foul mood and
spend the night soaking under his wife's censorious or indifferent gaze.
Sometimes they'd have dreary repetitive arguments once the kids were in
bed, but once again these became rare. Sheila didn't have the heart to
bother anymore. It wasn't that Yates was a mean drunk, just noisy and
stubborn and self-absorbed, and she decided to find better uses for her
The time came when Yates could no longer juggle fiction with drinking
and Remington Rand. The deeper he got into his novel, the more of its
intricate design he had to keep in his head, and the forced return to
hack-work every couple of weeks became a hideous distraction. This of
course led to more despair, drinking and exhaustion, until something had
to give. Perhaps the most loathsomely mechanical aspect of his Remington
Rand work was writing the internal house organ sifting through
a bulging monthly envelope full of scraps, which had to be converted into
sprightly items about regional sales meetings, or companies that had purchased
certain products and why, or who had been promoted to what and so on.
Yates couldn't do it anymore. It was all too close to the quiet desperation
at the heart of his novel, the sort of thing that taxed his Flaubert-ian
detachment to the utmost. Sheila, however, refused to give up on the $300
a month brought in by the newsletter alone, and so began to write the
thing herself. The subterfuge went on for years without a hitch. If anything,
the newsletter might have improved somewhat, as it's hard to imagine Yates
putting much thought into a playlet about the invention of the typewriter,
as Sheila was glad to do for a special centennial issue.
More so than most, Yates was at his best among people he admired
generally those who combined talent with integrity, particularly other
writers and one explanation for his abrasiveness in the mid-'50s
was that he knew very few people who fit that description. Nor was he
quite the sickly, uncertain and mostly sober young man who'd gone to Europe
to teach himself how to write; since then Yates had grown more sure of
his own essential talent, and this (plus alcohol) made him less patient
with people he regarded as pretentious and self-deluding.
Esquire had decided to buy "The B.A.R. Man" after all, whereupon
fiction editor Russ Hills and his assistant took Yates out to lunch. As
he later described the occasion, Yates listened with bored annoyance while
the two editors "kept cracking each other up at the table with inside
jokes and references that (Yates) couldn't follow." At one point,
though, they mentioned R.V. Cassill, a name Yates recognized (barely,
since he thought it was pronounced Cassill)as the author of such excellent
stories as "The Prize" and "The Biggest Band." When
Yates expressed his admiration, Hills told him that Cassill and his wife
were living in New York and about to give a party, to which an extra invitation
could easily be obtained. Yates was delighted, and his subsequent meeting
with Verlin Cassill at the man's "ramshackle" Village apartment
was (almost) an unqualified success.
"He was the first real writer I had ever met," Yates wrote,
"though I'd known plenty of the other kind, and he made an excellent
first impression: an intense, black-haired man of 38 or so, tired-looking
and very courteous, with a voice so deep you had to lean a little forward
in the party noise for fear of missing something. And even before that
party was over, though his courtesy never flagged, I had found out something
instructive about him. When Verlin says 'Ah' in a certain way it means
you have just said something dumb. It means he has decided to let you
get away with it for now, but that if you don't start watching your mouth,
in a minute he may tear you apart verbally, of course."
The privilege of meeting his first "real writer" coincided with
another encouraging development: Yates and three others were picked out
of 250 candidates to be featured in Scribner's forthcoming "Short
Story 1," the first volume in a series meant to showcase prominent
new writers. Four of Yates' stories were selected for the collection:
"Jody Rolled the Bones," "The Best of Everything,"
"Fun with a Stranger" and (at last) "A Really Good Jazz
Piano." Moreover, Scribner's contract included an option on his next
book "a happy and peaceful solution to the long drawn-out
Sam Lawrence flirtation," as Monica McCall put it, though Lawrence
was not so easily put off. Like a fickle lover whose flame returns with
jealousy, he tried to woo Yates back with honeyed words ("I have
absolute faith in you as an author"), as well as a proposed two-book
contract that would involve the novel-in-progress and a collection of
short stories. For the moment, however, all he was really offering was
an option of $500. ...
"Short Story 1" was published in September 1958, and included
stories by Yates, Gina Berriault, B.L. Barrett and Seymour Epstein. Under
the headline "Gifted Quartet," the New York Times commended
Yates for the "skill and insight" as well as the "admirable
variety" of his stories, but Epstein's work was more favorably noted,
and the reviewer generally deplored an "emphasis on characterization
at the expense of plot" and "the preponderance of unlikable
character types." Granville Hicks in the Saturday Review called the
four writers "talented and serious" but thought none was "quite
first-rate," and the New York Herald Tribune was similarly equivocal:
"Despite several small drawbacks, it is only fair to say that the
trial is off to a distinguished start."
Yates' own favorite of the four was Gina Berriault, in whose exquisitely
gloomy work he recognized a soul mate ... He also became friends with
Seymour Epstein, whom he met one day at the old Scribner's Building on
Fifth Avenue. For the next few years they were frequent companions, though
it was hardly a matter of deep calling to deep. "Dick was like a
Janus head," said Epstein. "Two different people." One
of these people, he concedes, was "charming and honorable" ("if
somebody needed help in the world of writing, Dick would immediately put
himself forward"), while the other was an "emotional parasite"
who drank too much and went around "bleed(ing) on people."
As Yates entered his fourth year of obsessively precise labor
as the form of his novel gradually prevailed over chaos his life
deteriorated. Outside the wellhouse he was a sullen, coughing drunk, and
Sheila steered clear as much as possible. About the only times he'd pull
himself together were his biweekly trips to the Remington Rand offices,
from which he generally returned sober. But one night he called home from
Grand Central in a state of curious disorientation. "I can't get
home," he said in a panic. "I don't know how to get home."
Sheila wasn't sure what to make of this: He didn't sound drunk, though
he'd been so "saturated with booze" the day before that it seemed
plausible he was still affected by it; but that would hardly explain his
frantic inability to negotiate a commute he'd made hundreds of times.
Sheila finally got him to calm down and listen to careful instructions,
and promised to meet him at the train. He was still "not right in
the head" when he arrived, and clearly he hadn't been drinking.
By the beginning of 1959 Yates was a mental and physical wreck. In January
he was hospitalized with an inguinal hernia a congenital defect,
made all the more painful by constant coughing fits. As for his being
"not right in the head," it was some measure of how out of touch
he'd become that he seemed amazed to learn his marriage was not only troubled
but moribund. Things came to a head when he was offered (through Cassill's
good offices) a part-time teaching position at the Iowa Workshop. As he'd
never ceased to believe that Remington Rand was at the bottom of his woes,
Yates figured this was at least one solution, however temporary, though
in fact he didn't much like the idea of leaving New York and neither,
to put it mildly, did Sheila.
When she couldn't find an elegant way to explain why she objected to moving
out to the sticks with an unstable alcoholic, Yates accused her of not
loving him anymore. Sheila wasn't inclined to deny it, and Yates decided
she was insane. Very much in the manner of Frank Wheeler lecturing April
on the definition of insanity, he took the position that her childhood
had warped her as surely as Charlie that she was, in effect, incapable
of love. Sheila admitted she'd never been entirely sure what "love"
was, but also pointed out that it didn't really matter in the present
case. She was fed up, period. Mostly she was tired of all the roaring,
repetitive arguments, 11 years' worth, and when Yates persisted she finally
fell silent and refused to respond. "I wasn't as glib as he was,"
she said. "He could talk rings around me and everyone else, drunk
They decided to separate, neither of them in any particular rush to go
through the "needless expense" of divorce unless one or the
other found somebody to marry. As for Yates's immediate plans, he couldn't
bear the thought of being in a strange place without his children; later
that summer, then, he wired Paul Engle at the Iowa Workshop that "other
commitments" had come up... Cassill, who was moving to Iowa in the
fall, had arranged for Yates to take over his writing class at the New
School for Social Research. In August, Yates moved back to the city.