Thoughts on Yates

[with an exerpt from "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates", by Blake Bailey]

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 a pistol.

• • •
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 time....

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 or sober."

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.