Editor's Choice

The Buffalo News, 7/27/2003
by Jeff Simon
A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates
by Blake Bailey (Picador, 671 pages, $35).

Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury, 534 pages, $32.50).

Two utterly extraordinary biographies of writers who, once underrated, are now in rocket ascendance, courtesy of magnificent 2001 story collections (Yates' "Collected Stories," Highsmith's "Selected Stories"). Both smoked and drank to self-destructive excess (calamitously in Yates' case). Both had dyed-in-the-wool friends whose devotion seemed to increase in direct proportion to the literary world's disenchantment and neglect. And, in the final analysis, both may have found their work to be the only fit objects of their love and fidelity.

The work of both begins in that great Thoreauvian ground of so much American literature - "lives of quiet desperation." What happens after that is diametrically opposite: Yates was the sensitive founding father of all the melancholy "K-mart realists" to come, a whole alcoholic literature of an unmoored, disillusioned, delusional middle class; Highsmith was such a fearless, sinister and deeply unwholesome explorer of psychopathology that the only way she could ever be perceived with any comfort at all was as a "crime writer."

These first biographies are, in some ways, models of the trade: utterly dogged and both making lavish use of personal letters and journals unseen before. They are triumphs of persistence and shoeleather. The portrait that emerges of Yates is of a handsome seeker of doom and delusion in a Brooks Brothers suit, a raging drunk, at crucial moments, almost constitutionally incapable of significantly aiding his own cause. He wrote speeches for Bobby Kennedy, got involved with film director John Frankenheimer in an abortive attempt to make a film of William Styron's "Lie Down in Darkness" and ended up in restless, often pathetic, academic vagabondage. Alcoholism and bipolar disorders occupied him everywhere (the drugs for the latter couldn't work because of this hopeless reliance on the former).

There are times, in reading, "A Tragic Honesty" when you can be forgiven a dire chill of recognition that Yates' fate was emblematic of serious American literature in its time - constantly subject to wicked neglect and personal chaos, each thing feeding on the other. Crack-up was always around the corner. Blake Bailey's detailed attention to all this is remarkable and unsparing, for all the deserved admiration. Do friends lock him up in a hospital's janitorial store room for his own protection? Very well, then, it's here. And it's a harrowing, black-humored great book of its time.

Andrew Wilson's "Beautiful Shadow" is more shocking: Whereas Yates was a legend among fellow writers, Wilson's is the first opening of what has, up to now, been a largely closed book - a life zealously and successfully guarded from biographical scrutiny. From the nude photo of a 21-year-old Highsmith still vainly trying to be heterosexual to what seems to be every lesbian affair and infatuation and every cat she ever owned, Wilson is utterly tireless and unflinching, even in the face of her anti-Semitism and ghastly prejudices of all sorts (no Highsmith reader will ever be surprised at evidence of her fulminating misanthropy).

In its final paragraph, you encounter what may well be the damndest confession of biographer-subject relationship you will ever read. After Highsmith's death, a lifelong friend gives Wilson "an old dressing gown" of hers, one that's clean but still with strands of her gray hair "nestling around the neck . . . Gingerly, I took hold of it and placed it around my shoulders, easing my arms through the same soft, dark spaces once occupied by her slight frame. I tied the waist-cord around me and sat at my desk, looking down into my hands which I knew would one day write these words."

Patricia Highsmith, reigning mistress of 20th century Gothic, meet your perfect biographer.