A Splendid Biography of 'America's Finest Forgotten Author'

New Orleans Times-Picayune,7/13/03
By Kevin Rabalais

He was a darling on the New York literary scene, a wanted man in
Hollywood. His first novel, "Revolutionary Road," which Kurt Vonnegut
called a modern "Gatsby," was a favorite to win the 1961 National Book
Award, competing with Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Walker Percy's "The
Moviegoer," which won. Two years later, in 1963, Pageant magazine listed
him as one of "Ten Americans to Watch." At novelist William Styron's
recommendation, he became a speechwriter for Attorney General Robert
Kennedy.

In the early years of his career, it was common for critics, readers and
writers to drop Richard Yates' name in literary conversations alongside
those of Cheever, Updike and Styron. But even after he published such
novels as "A Special Providence," "The Easter Parade," "A Good School" and
the classic story collections "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" and "Liars in
Love," Yates, whose literary life spanned more than 30 years, had a
reputation that rose and fell and rose again. In his final years, Yates
plunged into obscurity, dying in the Birmingham VA hospital in 1992 before
he could complete "Uncertain Times," a novel about his speechwriting
experiences with Kennedy. Lucky for us, those who not-so-silently admired
his work for years have kept it alive for us to discover. To invoke
"Revolutionary Road," Richard Ford wrote in the foreword to the recent
Vintage edition of the novel, "enacts a sort of cultural-literary secret
handshake among its devotees."

We are now in the early stages of a period that we can safely call the
Yates Revival. Starting in 2000 with the re-release of "Revolutionary
Road," publishers have begun to reissue Yates' work. More than half of it
is now back in print, including the colossal and heartbreaking "Collected
Stories." We now have the opportunity to see why Yates had attained, in
the early years of his career, status as one of America's most important
writers of the World War II generation. A more-than-welcome addition to
the Yates revival is the publication of Blake Bailey's "A Tragic Honesty,"
the first biography about the man the London Times has called America's
finest forgotten author.

"A Tragic Honesty" serves as both biography and criticism that will
surprise those familiar with Yates's work and others who are coming upon
it for the first time. Bailey, a former New Orleanian, intricately weaves
Yates' personal life -- one of alcoholism, manic depression, fame,
obscurity and, ultimately, perseverance -- by a man his friends called an
unapologetic gentleman -- with the work itself. Where suitable, he finds
fictional characters modeled on Yates' personal relationships and explores
the author's troubled creative development.

Bailey truly succeeds, however, by chronicling the minor disappointments
and triumphs that construct lives, and Yates, whose work is founded on
such moments and our desperate desire to pierce (??) them in search of
something further, couldn't have chosen a better biographer. Take, for
instance, this scene from a period of severe depression before the
publication of "Revolutionary Road":
"One morning while his wife was fixing breakfast (Yates) went outside
to burn some trash. A few minutes later he let loose an aria of
obscenities, but the jaded Sheila assumed he'd stubbed his toe and went on
with her business. Finally she glanced outside: There was a bushfire in
the backyard, on the edges of which Yates gamboled ineffectually. The
volunteer fire department arrived in time to save their house, and a
penitent Yates agreed to become a member, faithfully attending meetings
every Saturday night."

At times, "A Tragic Honesty" reads like a novel, its pace quick and
littered with unforgettable stories and vivid characters. This is the
textured account of one man's life and his nearly obsessive need to create
art, and Bailey strikes to the depths of Yates the writer and man, all in
all making the book a pleasure to read even for those who have never read
a line of his work.

Several years ago at a New Orleans reading to celebrate the publication of
his collection of stories "Women with Men," Richard Ford spoke briefly
about "the state of American literature." He listed authors and titles,
gave anecdotes. He worked his way through a list of the books that shaped
him as a person and writer. Then he mentioned "Revolutionary Road," and
his demeanor changed. "Read Revolutionary Road," he said. He uttered the
words in a somber tone, as if this were the secret handshake that he had
received and was now passing on, its significance not to be taken lightly.
It was the first time many in the audience had ever heard of the novel or
its author. Now, it's difficult to imagine a bookshelf without it and a
handful of other works in Yates' oeuvre. So listen to Richard Ford: Read
"Revolutionary Road." And then read "A Tragic Honesty," a perfect
companion not only to Yates and his work but also a guide through the
struggles of life and the unending need to create art that shows us the
possibility of redemption.



Kevin Rabalais' book of interviews with American novelists, "Novel
Voices," was published earlier this summer by Writer's Digest Books.