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A Fresh Twist in the Road For Novelist Richard Yates, a Specialist in Grim Irony, Late Fame's a Wicked Return.

Elizabeth Venant

The Los Angeles Times, July 9, 1989

It was the kind of propitious beginning that most young writers can only dream about, and, by all counts, it should have signaled a career of celebrity and honors. Richard Yates was 36 years old and his first novel, "Revolutionary Road,"published in 1961, had garnered not the elliptical adjectives that constitutethe usual dust-jacket blurbs, but whole sentences, an entire trumpeting paragraph, from no less than the country's pre-eminent living playwright,Tennessee Williams:

"Here is more than fine writing; here is what, added to fine writing, makes a book come immediately, intensely, and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don't know what it is." Since then, a veritable Who's Who of writers has jumped in with ebullient praise for Yates' literary prowess. Kurt Vonnegut has called "Revolutionary Road" " `The Great Gatsby' of my time." Critic James Atlas declares it's "one of the few novels I know that could be called flawless."

Praise From Styron, Updike

Then there are William Styron, John Updike, Anne Beattie, Robert Stone all sounding their admiration for his impeccably crafted prose.

Finally, he has been championed for three decades by Seymour Lawrence,one of the literary Establishment's most respected publishers.

So it seems almost a case of fatal defiance that Yates has managed to slip past the footlights, remaining unknown not only to the masses of popular-novelreaders but to most literate book lovers as well.

His novels have never become big sellers, with 12,000 copies tops for any one book. But, more, his spartan existence and his lifelong battle with the whiskey bottle have done nothing to make him into the sort of faddish idol a well-scrubbed yuppie could adore.

Therefore, his current recognition has been all the more startling-an event worthy of the author's hallmark irony. Photographed by his friend Jill Krementz, he stares out soulfully from his writer's tweeds in the current issue of the ultimate celebrity magazine, Fame-the one with Donald Trump on the cover.

Yates calls the appearance "embarrassing." After all, he rarely hasa spare dime, lives without a car and has weathered much of adult lifewithout a television set. Such cynosures of the decade's taste as "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" passed by without his notice.

Living in Los Angeles, where he is teaching creative writing at the University of Southern California and working on his 10th book of fiction, he holes up in an unadorned apartment where the rented sofa, easy chair, table and lamp form a perfunctory living-room setting. Facing a bare whitewall is the square table on which the author writes.

Suffers From Emphysema

The principal artifacts are the cigarette butts that fill the ashtrays (despite the fact that Yates suffers from emphysema and lost a lung to an earlier bout with tuberculosis) and clusters of yellow pencils, which he uses to write his manuscript (even the old manual Royal on which he types his pages goes too fast to allow him control).

Three portraits of his daughters, nailed to the wall with exacting symmetry, are the only objects that identify the place as home.

Yet it is in this anonymous room that Yates is enjoying new discovery. "Revolutionary Road," along with his 1976 novel, "The Easter Parade," andthe collection of short stories, "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" (1962), currentlyare being reissued, after all of his titles had drifted out of print. Justthe week before, Esquire magazine bought two chapters of his book in progress.

"It's a shot in the arm," he says of the sale. Sitting in a neighborhood bistro in West Los Angeles, Yates, 63, is smiling like any successful novelist, declaring: "I am delighted to be interviewed."

A tall, gaunt man who speaks in a deep, graveled voice, Yates generally is not prone to such unqualified cheerfulness. His head, which he often anchors on a fist, swings back and forth as he talks in an unconscious gesture of negativity. When friends speak of him, they describe a person of moral, almost puritanical, rectitude, a perfectionist quick to correct errors, a proverbial "gentleman from the old school."

`People Shy Away'

"He has values of integrity that are lost in today's glitz and yuppiness, and you pay for that," says Lawrence, who publishes his imprint at HoughtonMifflin. "People shy away from him because he tells the truth."

The truth Yates tells in his books is of unremarkable middle-class American strapped in dreary lives that they nevertheless often confront with courage.In "Revolutionary Road," Yates depicts a disintegrating suburban marriage; his earnest heroine, April Wheeler, who longs for a world of "marvelous golden people," holds on to a husband whom one reviewer has described as "a kind of repellent Walter Mitty." But, true to form for Yates' principal characters, Wheeler is unable to fulfill her aspirations.

Nor are Yates' other books optimistic. "The Easter Parade" opens with the passage, "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life..." and only on the book's final page does Emily Grimes seem to fall into step with the mainstream. In "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness," Yates' short stories portray devastating moments of unwanted solitude.

'Gray, Deathly World'

Just how dim a picture he gives of everyday life is a matter of critical opinion. Writing in Nation, Joyce Carol Oates has called Yates' fictional universe "a sad, gray, deathly world."

Critic and novelist Carolyn See, who has reviewed two of Yates' books, wrote eight years ago: "He's not going to get the recognition he truly deserves because to read Yates is as painful as getting all your teeth filled down to the gum with no anesthetic. . . ."

So it's little wonder that when asked about "Revolutionary Road," the author himself fires off, "You found it depressing, didn't you?" Everybody does-or almost.

Yates supporter William Styron takes exception to that evaluation. "You don't use the word depressing as a criterion for the excellence of a book," Styron declares. "A lot of remarkable books that we all value very highly are depressing. And I didn't find it depressing; it rises above that."

"I hope he gets more attention," adds Styron, who contributed the cover blurb for the new edition of "Revolutionary Road": "A deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic."

Downbeat Look at Life

Still, Lawrence, who advanced Yates $1,500 to write "Revolutionary Road," thinks that his downbeat look at life has impeded commercial success."His books are grim portrayals of life in America. People want to be cheered up and entertained."

"He's a very angsted novelist," his old friend Vonnegut says; besides, he points out, Yates writes about people who are "third-rate financially" and "the Harvard Business School people want winners."

Nevertheless, Yates' buddies have repeatedly tried to heave him up before the crowds. Four of his books were chosen as Book of the Month Club selections, sent to as many as half-a-million households. "We tried everything at Delacorte," says Lawrence, who formerly had his imprint there, "but we never could reach a huge audience."

For his part, Vonnegut has proposed Yates three times for membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, with backing by Styron and John Updike. But, he says, even the nation's lauded artists and musicians are not necessarily familiar with Richard Yates.

To a large degree, Yates' work reflects his life, neither of which have been particularly easy for him to negotiate.

"He's had a hard life," says Vonnegut, who's known the author since the '60s when they taught together at the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop. He feels hampered by both health and money problems, Vonnegut says.

Yates adds to the list of hardships his two divorces. ("Anyway, I've got the three daughters, so it can't all be wreckage.")

He's been on the wagon for two years, though, he says, "I was much more affable when I was drinking. Now I'm sort of shrunk into myself from the effort to keep from drinking."

Honesty and Irony

Yates talks about his life with a combination of almost bone-crushing honesty and his brand of cool, distanced irony. The son of a sales manager in the Mazda lamp division of General Electric, he grew up in New York. His parents were divorced when he was 3 years old. When asked if his childhood was happy, he says: "Most people looking back believe their childhood was more poignant than anyone else's. So I won't compete with anyone for the poignancy prize. My parents were decent people. My childhood was OK."

Eager to start writing, he skipped college (as did Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway, he points out) and wound up making a living as a free-lance public relations writer.

Since then he has paid his bills by teaching creative writing variously at Iowa, Columbia University, and briefly at Harvard Extension and Boston University.

"The business of teaching creative writing offers solace to writers who are down on their luck," he says with deadpan humor, quoting Vonnegut.

When he talks shop, however, Yates' relationship with writers and characters in his novels becomes immediate. April Wheeler, for instance, is "the one who takes your heart and throws it someplace else. She puts her heart into everything. She even put her heart into that silly marriage. I like her enormously. I think she's a wonderful girl. If she were real, I'd find her irresistible."

`My Best Book'

"’Revolutionary Road' remains my best book without question," he adds. "I'm one of these writers who has the misfortune to write his best book first."

It's such a sense of the sad that often gets Yates compared to F. Scott Fitzgerald. "I derive from him more than anyone," says Yates, who discovered his works in the '40s. "When I was young, he had a false reputation as a popular writer of little substance with one first-class book to his credit." It took a lot of effort by great explicators, like Edmund Wilson and Malcolm Cowley, he says, to put Fitzgerald on literature's big-hit charts for the duration.

There are other similarities between the two authors, Vonnegut says, pointing out that they look alike and that Fitzgerald had tuberculosis; but mainly there was the same turn of mind.

"Yates accomplishes what Fitzgerald did at his best," James Atlas observes, "an evocation of life's unbearable poignance, the way it has of nurturing hope and denying it, often in the same instant." Says Yates of his tendency to see tragedy more than hope: "Something would be wrong if I didn't."

He quotes former Israeli diplomat and foreign minister Abba Eban, on the occasion of President John Kennedy's assassination, " `Tragedy is the difference between what is and what might have been.' To dwell on what might have been is nostalgia, which I think serious writers can easily fall into. Though it's much more satisfactory and more profitable if you can keep your eye on what is."

Writes in the Morning

The "what is" of Yates' present life is the simple routine of his work: up at 6 a.m. and writing for five or six hours. "Since I'm getting older the mornings are the only time I have that kind of energy. I get ideas that flow out of the pencil. Afternoons are bad periods for me. The energy's gone."

His book is almost halfway done, and going well for the moment, though he worries that it's already been four years in the works. Titled "Uncertain Times," it is drawn from a period of his life in 1963 when he worked as a speech writer for Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy. The title comes from Kennedy's discourse during Yates' hiring interview: "`We're living in very uncertain times, Mr. Yates, and those of us in a position of leadership are obliged to be responsive to issues like civil rights, but at the same time I have a great sense of responsibility here. Do you understand that?' And I said, `Yes, I do,' without quite knowing what he was talking about," Yates says.

"But the times were uncertain for me. I only took the job because I needed the money, which is an odd thing because everybody else around him was there at some sacrifice of income. I was the only hireling. I never got to know him very well, Mr. Robert Kennedy, but I did write everything that came out of his mouth for eight months.

"I hope the title will be ironic."

Yates has ideas for two more novels, which will bring his output close to the 15 books he considers respectable for a lifetime. "Nobody knows how much time I left," he says, a volcanic cough rumbling up through him every now and then as if to confirm his foreboding.

Later, back in the apartment, he pats a sofa pillow in an idle gesture of domesticity that seems eloquently left over. "Getting out of here is an appealing idea," he says. "But then, as long as I've lived, getting out of wherever I am has seemed an appealing idea. I've learned to temper that."

So he's always continued to write, with the paradox, says Vonnegut, that "he's becoming a better artist as his books have become less recognized."

Indeed, Lawrence, who's negotiating to publish his new book, persistently believes in Yates-to the end and, if need be, thereafter.