From Hard Living, Memorable Writing

The Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2003

By Jeffrey Burke


When the novelist Richard Yates died in 1992, at the age of 66, he left
behind two ex-wives, three daughters, nine books of fiction, one
unfinished novel, avid fans, awful sales and countless hangovers. For a
time, he ranked among the best writers in America, perhaps unmatched for
his depiction of the postwar disillusionment that ran in tandem with
rising prosperity and expectations. Deemed a master by contemporaries
ranging from William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut to Andre Dubus and Richard
Ford, he was alas a writer's writer, and scribes alone won't keep a corpus
alive. A few years after his death, nearly all of Yates's books were out
of print.

"To write so well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy," wrote
the novelist Stewart O'Nan in 1999. In a long essay decrying the neglect,
he assessed Yates's fiction and sketched his life, hoping to nudge
publishers. In closing, Mr. O'Nan also wished for "a good biography [that]
could spark a re-evaluation of his achievement."

Maybe this O'Nan was fruitful. In the past four years, new editions of six
Yates titles have appeared ("The Collected Stories," 2001, comprises two
of them). Now here is the biography, "A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work
of Richard Yates" (Picador, 671 pages, $35).

He ignored warnings not to mix drugs and alcohol, yet the prose kept
coming.

It may stoke whatever revival the reissues have kindled just by putting
Yates's name in circulation again or suggesting that a man worth so many
pages is worth looking into. Once read, it may as easily appall as
enthrall with its depiction of an artist who combined creativity and
self-destructiveness to such a degree.

Yates was a lonely, awkward, diffident child. His parents divorced when he
was three, leaving him and his older sister with a mother who was
feckless, alcoholic and implausibly ambitious. She provided the grist for
major characters in three novels and an early personification of what
Blake Bailey calls Yates's "bleakly deterministic worldview," in which
people "fail because of limitations over which they have no control."

After a stint in the Army during World War II (recalled in "A Special
Providence," 1969), he married in 1948 and began his "awkward
apprenticeship" as a writer. Yates had begun to blossom in his teens as
editor of his high-school newspaper, and he possessed a romantic view of
himself as a Hemingwayesque figure. The words didn't come easy, however.
He was "a slow, insecure writer," frequently blocked. Still, he slogged
away, through a bout of tuberculosis and draining day jobs -- finding an
agent, collecting rejections and finally starting to sell short stories.

In the mid-1950s, he began work on "Revolutionary Road" (1961), an
unsentimental depiction of a young couple's dreams and frustration. It
took five years to write and "wreaked havoc on his health and personal
life," writes Mr. Bailey. It also made his reputation among writers. But
sales weren't great, his marriage had collapsed and Yates soon slid into
habitual bingeing. Many writers have hit the bottle hard; Yates surpassed
them. Around this time, he was drinking almost a fifth of bourbon a day.
When drunk, he could be entertaining or vicious, maudlin or violent. Women
were treated to an old-school blend of charm and chauvinism that often
ended in cruelty. The Yates counterparts in his fiction are rarely
likable.

In 1960, his boozing triggered his first mental breakdown (retold in
"Disturbing the Peace," 1975), and another episode two years later
introduced the writer to the new world of psychopharmacology. By 1974,
according to Mr. Bailey, "Yates was taking as many as three different
psychotropics a day, in addition to lithium." And he ignored warnings not
to mix drugs and alcohol. His cigarette habit climbed to five packs a day;
late in life emphysema would tether him to an oxygen tank. Over the years,
the aging faces in his dust-jacket photos record an awful decline.

Throughout his mostly self-imposed problems, Yates kept writing, even
while forced to find other work to keep up alimony and child-support
payments. He taught writing -- brilliantly, to judge from students'
memories -- wrote speeches for Robert F. Kennedy and did a few
screenplays. His book sales took off only once, with "The Easter Parade"
(1976). In his long bachelor periods, he often lived alone in dire little
flats minimally furnished: "Friends . . . remember the arc of cockroach
carcasses around his desk (casually stamped as he swiveled to and fro in
his chair)." The crusty curmudgeon of his old age was captured by Yates
fan and "Seinfeld" creator Larry David, who based a 1990 episode ("The
Jacket") and character (Elaine's father) on an awkward dinner with the
writer.

As in most biographies, the detail can overwhelm, but Mr. Bailey keeps it
all interesting by tracing the myriad threads that connect Yates's life
and fiction and by writing highly readable prose that at times shines with
well-chosen words, such as that "arc of cockroach carcasses." His
assessments of Yates's novels are insightful and sympathetic. They provide
generous introductions to a body of work that belongs on the bookshelf of
any serious reader, from the widely acknowledged genius of "Revolutionary
Road" and "The Easter Parade" to my second-tier favorites, "Cold Spring
Harbor" (1986) and "Young Hearts Crying" (1984).

Where Mr. Bailey succeeds most recalls one of his own lines about Yates's
skill at drawing readers into the pain and failure of his characters: "Few
writers can make the reader wince the way Yates can." Mr. Bailey's
portrait of an artist who couldn't help falling short of his tremendous
promise has wince written all over it.

Mr. Burke is a Journal page-one editor.