Inspired By His Own Limitations

Tampa Tribune,7/20/03
By Stephen Thompson

Richard Yates is the best writer you've never heard of. In the early 1960s, after the publication of his debut novel, ``Revolutionary Road,'' he was rightly hailed as a young master, often by other novelists more successful, commercially at least, than he would ever be.

But the praise was often qualified. No one could doubt Yates' command over his craft. What they could ask is, why did Yates use his gifts to present what seemed like such an unremittingly dire view of the world? Once he was asked to make an ending to a short story he wrote upbeat. He refused. The title of the collection in which the story appeared was ``Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.''

In ``A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work Of Richard Yates,'' Blake Bailey describes the critical reception to ``Revolutionary Road,'' and much, much more. Indeed, when the reader opens Bailey's biography, the first question is: Does Richard Yates, whose reputation was in eclipse until the publication of his collected stories two years ago, deserve 613 pages, not including endnotes?

The answer is a resounding yes.

This is a literary Horatio Alger story of sorts. Yates overcame his troubled childhood, but it had changed him. Still, he remained clear-eyed enough to transmute his memories into brilliant art. And Yates would do this kind of thing for the rest of his life - using his personal experience as fodder, including his failed marriages, his trips in and out of mental institutions, his tuberculosis, his screenwriting gigs, his speechwriting job with then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and his strained relationship with his children. One of the signature pleasures, for Yates' fans, is learning about the actual happenings, as spelled out by Bailey's meticulous research, and then comparing them with the novels and short stories in which they appear in different form. It was not uncommon for people who found themselves in Yates' personal orbit, to re- emerge with their names changed in his fiction.

And the fiction turned out, more often than not, to be nothing less than astounding, which in and of itself is amazing, given Yates' personal demons, especially his penchant for alcohol. Yates was always after some kind of essential truth about the human condition. Typically, his work illustrated how people are often trapped by their own limitations. To some, this was depressing. To his fans, it was heartbreaking and honest.

Bailey's biography is excellent at weaving the life and work into a single, coherent narrative, one that hews to the facts and avoids speculation. Many of those who knew and loved Yates are still alive, and all seem to have cooperated with Bailey's venture. Letters written by Yates' first wife are particularly instructive. And there is much here of what Yates himself thought - not only of his life, but also of art.

No one should be surprised at Yates' admiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald - both are considered among the country's premier prose stylists of the 20th century. But what is truly revealing is that Yates considered a story's structure - not the prose style - paramount.

In a perfect world, the publication of those collected stories a few years back will herald a new look at Yates' work, including his novels, and none of his work will ever go out of print. If that turns out to be the case, Bailey's biography will be the definitive one.