Working Wounded

The Washington Post, June 29, 2003

By Michael Lowenthal

Richard Yates was the muse of the manqué. The author of Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade and eight other works of exquisitely morose fiction conjured up characters for whom, as one of them resignedly notes, "expectation topped fulfillment." More specifically, in nearly every story Yates depicted artists whose dreams exceed their talents: hapless community-theater actors, failed sculptors, blocked poets forced into dreary teaching jobs, tenors who settle for lives as salesmen. For sheer bleakness, it's hard to compete with Yates, whose work is also chock-full of alcoholism, divorce, mental illness and poverty.

Remarkably, however, A Tragic Honesty, the first-ever biography of Yates (who died in 1992), manages to trump the author at his own game. When we read his fictions, we can suppose that the unabated desperation is, after all, "fictional," but Blake Bailey's authoritative book offers no such escape hatch. Bailey demonstrates in crushing detail that almost all of Yates's fiction was painstakingly (emphasis on pain) faithful to his own experiences.

Yates, it turns out, was dealt a poor hand in life (alcoholism, divorce, mental illness, poverty), then shuffled and reshuffled the same cards obsessively in his work. Bailey relates the "truth" behind Yates's inventions, revealing, for example, that the author barely bothered to change the names of the people on whom he based his characters. (His mother, Dookie, becomes the unforgettable Pookie in The Easter Parade.) And all those thwarted artists? Well, Dookie was indeed a sculptor whose career foundered. Yates's father was a talented tenor who, instead of singing, toiled for General Electric. And Yates himself was a novelist forced to take day jobs he despised, whose acclaimed debut -- Revolutionary Road, a National Book Award finalist -- outshone his next three decades' work, whose screenplays all went unproduced. In short, the prototypical Yatesian artist manqué.

Or was he? Like many latecomers to the cult of Richard Yates, I'd heard the story of this "writer's writer" who'd been all but ignored during his lifetime, whose failure to match Revolutionary Road (and whose consequent obscurity) drove him to ruin, who only posthumously gained his due acclaim. I was surprised, therefore, to learn from A Tragic Honesty that, while Yates never achieved the degree of success enjoyed by his friends William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut, he was by any standard an extremely successful writer. Everything he wrote was handsomely published by major houses and widely, respectfully reviewed. He won Guggenheim and National Arts Council grants. The Easter Parade -- written 15 years after his debut -- was a Book-of-the-Month Club dual main selection that sold more than 100,000 copies. Although none of his books was made into a movie, a number were optioned by Hollywood.

Bailey's biography suggests that the vagaries of Yates's career -- no matter how frustrating -- were not what led him toward ruin; the seeds of self-destruction were deeper-set. The alcoholism and manic depression with which he struggled likely had genetic components, and it was his fear of human abandonment, not neglect by the literary world, that haunted him. If anything, literature saved Yates.

Writing was the only thing that could keep him from drinking, and such was his commitment that during his many mental breakdowns, visitors to his hospital beds often found him scribbling away on manuscripts. Yes, he struggled to live up to his early success. Yes, he battled periods of blockage. But he was hardly unproductive. Between 1975 and 1986 he published six books -- an average of more than one every two years. While everything else in his life went to pieces, he wrote more, and more brilliantly, than any number of his "healthy" contemporaries.

Curiously, the act of writing often gets short shrift in Bailey's account, and so he misses the true triumph of Yates's accomplishment. We're told at one point, for example, that Yates has "half finished a novel"; the next mention has the project in "the home stretch," and two pages later galleys for The Easter Parade arrive. Granted, a writer alone in a room, pencil in hand, does not high drama make, but one longs for an evocation of how Yates experienced the creation of his masterpiece.

Bailey (whose previous book was The Sixties) tracked down everyone from Yates's elementary-school chums to women with whom he flirted at cocktail parties. Given that the biographer had full access to Yates's papers, as well as the cooperation of his daughters, ex-wives and even one of his psychiatrists, it is unlikely that any subsequent life of Yates will be called for. A Tragic Honesty is admirably thorough.

And yet the biography is far from definitive, because in emphasizing the "true" basis of Yates's fiction, Bailey often overlooks his craft. As Yates himself insisted, "All fiction is filled with technique." In the end, it seems almost beside the point whether his books were based on "real" people and events; his work endures because he was able to turn his unique experiences into universally recognizable human stories. While the typical Yates character carries an inflated view of his artistic gifts, Yates probably underestimated his own greatness.

Despite an almost ridiculous constellation of hardships that would have thwarted many a lesser artist, he persevered to produce lasting classics of American fiction. The real tragedy of Richard Yates's life, then, may be that he never realized just how un-Yatesian he was.

Michael Lowenthal is the author of the novels "Avoidance" and "The Same Embrace."

© 2003 The Washington Post Company