|'A Tragic Honesty': Waiting for a Break That Never Came|
The New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2003
By John Sutherland
Richard Yates is one of literature's nearly men -- no loser but never quite an outright winner. Born into an impoverished and dysfunctional family (whose dysfunctions and monetary crises he reproduced, with Xerox fidelity, in his own roles of husband and father), he missed out on a university education. Throughout life he nursed a corrosive anger against novelists who had that advantage over him. ''I'd give anything to have gotten a college education,'' he exclaimed in later life. ''I feel the lack of it all the time.'' He was, as photographs (and innumerable sexual partners) confirm, strikingly handsome, but in a style that he himself despised. Yates privately thought his looks feminine. And he had, as Blake Bailey records in A Tragic Honesty, ''a lifelong horror of being perceived as homosexual.'' Despite a graceful appearance he was in his movements clumsy ''on a legendary scale.'' At school, as Yates said of one of his characters, ''the shower room was the worst part'' of his day. Morbid shyness afflicted him through life.
Yates, born in 1926, served in World War II and was a single I.Q. point short of qualifying for officer training. He was discharged ''with a Good Conduct medal and the rank of private first class.'' He brought back no good war stories but, typically, he made good fiction out of the lack of them. His early and finest short story (as he liked to think), A Really Good Jazz Piano, was turned down nine times, with gushing praise, by the best magazines in the United States. Only the devoted persistence of his agent, Monica McCall, got it into print. Yates's first published novel, Revolutionary Road, had the misfortune to be a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, an annus mirabilis for American fiction. It came up against Catch-22, Franny and Zooey, The Pawnbroker and The Moviegoer, which won. Budgeted by its publisher to sell 20,000 copies, Yates's novel went on to clear less than half that.
On the strength of the award publicity, he was hired by the director John Frankenheimer to do a screenplay of his friend William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness. Had it come off, Yates might, like his other friend Brian Moore, have supported a career in quality fiction with quality film work. Alas, the project fell through. In later life, Yates taught creative writing (very well, apparently) at various universities. But he failed to get tenure at his main base, the University of Iowa -- something that embittered him inordinately.
Bitterness stoically concealed -- except when in drink or mania -- was the flavor of his career. Yates had, as Bailey records, ''two great ambitions -- publication in The New Yorker and front-page notice by The New York Times Book Review.'' The first he never achieved (despite some of the most glowing rejections in literary history). Nor the second. He might have struck lucky with The Easter Parade (1976), but the review (a good one) ''ended up on Page 4.''
Nothing ever went quite right. A little luck mixed with his genius and Yates would be secure among the American immortals. He never had a best seller, never won the big prizes. He arrived slightly too late on the literary scene and was overtaken by what he contemptuously called the ''post-Realistic School.'' He survives by a process that the novelist Richard Ford sees as Masonic. Admiration for Yates, Ford says, is ''a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.'' Writers have always stood by him. One wonders whether it is their discreet lobbying that keeps so much of his work in print.
Yates's reputation will not be damaged by this compulsively readable biography. Yates was, as Bailey portrays him, both a great writer and ''almost a parody of the self-destructive personality.'' He was a lifelong four-pack-a-day man. He chain smoked in a tuberculosis sanatorium and puffed on even when chained to oxygen cylinders, his lungs rotted with terminal emphysema. On at least one occasion he burned down his apartment, toasting his work in progress.
His workplace in such apartments, during his years of divorced solitude, was spartan in its simplicity and gothic in its squalor. ''Visitors were struck by certain awful details to which Yates himself seemed oblivious: the bloodstains on his desk-chair cushion (from piles), the calm roaches in plain sight, nothing but bourbon and instant coffee in the tiny kitchen.'' His daily routine in later life was described by one of his daughters: ''He'd wake up tremendously hung over, and put himself together for about two hours. Then he wrote, and then he went out and got drunk for the rest of the day.''
Children of a failed sculptor mother and a failed singer, Yates and his sister spent their infancy flitting from apartment to apartment. It was, as he described it, a domestic environment smelling of ''mildew and cat droppings and Plasticine.'' In later years his mother, always hysterical, descended into alcoholism and eventual dementia. Her image -- ambivalently accented -- haunts his fiction. The one aesthetic pleasure Yates records in his boyhood is the movie theater, the hovel on his childhood heath. What saved him for literature was the good fortune of a few years at a private school, during one of the family's upswings. His experience at Avon Old Farms School is chronicled in his novel A Good School (1978). Here he learned to write for student magazines. Words, he discovered, came easily to him.
After serving in the war, Yates took on various jobs in which he could employ his verbal fluency. He was, variously, a copywriter and a malcontented journalist. All the time he labored at his own writing. His best-paid work was with Remington Rand, merchandisers of the first commercially viable computer (something that interested Yates not at all). He was trapped, like other men in gray flannel suits, in a good job. He married, entrapping himself further. His wife, Sheila (a gifted woman who could possibly have done well on the stage), had settled for the life of a ''no-nonsense New York secretary.'' Their marriage produced two daughters before failing. It also produced a magnificent novel of suburban nightmare, Revolutionary Road.
Yates entered in middle age on his ''second bachelorhood.'' It was followed by a second doomed marriage. During these years, and for the rest of his life, he freelanced. For a period in the 1960's he was a speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy. He hated being a hireling, and even if Dallas had never happened he would have drunk himself out of what, for less driven artists, would have been a dream job. That he was Lee Harvey Oswald was one of his delusions in late-life mental breakdowns.
By midcareer, Yates was a full-blown alcoholic and regularly hospitalized. He obstinately drank through whatever drugs were prescribed, with disastrous physical effects (and a fine "drinking novel", Disturbing the Peace). His manias became increasingly florid. A display of self-crucifixion at the 1962 Bread Loaf conference has become, as Bailey dryly records, ''part of the permanent lore of the place.'' A man of limited cultural interests, Yates was a passionate lover of a few books. Most passionately The Great Gatsby, which was, for him, ''holy writ.'' One wonders whether a crack-up was, as for Fitzgerald, a creative necessity.
For all the chaos of his life, Yates's prose is exceptionally disciplined. This quality may be found on any page: the following, for example, from a midcareer short story, ''Trying Out for the Race'' (the narrative is angled through a character who is recognizably Yates's first wife, Sheila):
''Back in the 20's, as a girl and daydreaming reporter on The New Rochelle Standard-Star, she had looked up from her desk one day to see a tall, black-haired, shy-looking young man being shown around the office, a new staff member named Hugh Baker. 'And the minute he walked in,' she would say later, many times, 'I thought, There's the man I'm going to marry.' It didn't take long. They were married within the year and had a daughter two years later; then, soon, everything fell apart in ways Elizabeth never cared to discuss.''
But of course the story does. Falling apart is Yates's specialty.
For admirers of Richard Yates -- a lively group, supported nowadays by a Web site -- Bailey's biography will be indispensable. Excellent in itself, it records, with photographic accuracy, where Yates's obsessively autobiographical fiction originated. And how good is that fiction? Wonderful. Forget ''nearly.''
John Sutherland is currently working on the authorized biography of the poet Stephen Spender.
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company