A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates
by Blake Bailey
Published by Picador
671 pages, 2003
Reviewed by Richard Klin
To be a devotee of Richard Yates, circa 1990, was a lonely undertaking. Obtaining his published work involved scouring used bookstores and the occasional lucky find at an outdoor sale. Yates died in 1992 in -- quite incongruously for this son of New York City -- Alabama. In the decade since his death, his posthumous literary reputation has undergone a steady, exponential rehabilitation. If not a full-fledged revival, it is certainly a very definite resurgence. Reading Richard Yates these days is not dependent on the haphazard discovery, with much of his work back in print; accessible to the reading public and attractively packaged. A final, logical step towards complete critical restoration would be the full-length bio. Blake Bailey's A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates is an artful, comprehensive chronicle -- essential for any Yates exegete, readable and engaging to the Yates neophyte.
There are a host of reasons for Yates' up-and-down literary fortunes these last 40 years, an author ultimately "cultish rather than popular..." Not the least were Yates' miasma of personal demons, painfully and amply enumerated in A Tragic Honesty: Epic, out-of-control drinking, a four-pack-a-day smoking habit (on top of already existing, serious lung problems), mental illness, psychotic episodes. "In later years," Bailey writes, "Yates would almost become a parody of the self-destructive personality: he smoked constantly despite tuberculosis, emphysema, and repeated doses of pneumonia; he was an alcoholic, who, when unable to write, would sometimes start the day with martinis at breakfast; he rarely exercised (indeed could hardly walk without gasping), and ate red meat at every meal if he could help it."
Yates' failure to fully emerge as a leading, notable writer was probably largely owed to an oeuvre neither fish nor fowl -- and to plain bad timing. The loci for much of his work -- most famously his most well-known endeavor, Revolutionary Road -- is the suburbs, a fact duly noted and dismissed as the freewheeling 1960s and 70s progressed. But Yates hardly devoted the totality of his writing energy to simply chronicle American suburbia. His characters are often dark, deeply unhappy, prone to madness, and often given to copious doses of self-medication. The typical "Yatesian loser" never quite inhabits the true, bottomless hell made so famous in postwar American writing -- hardly the sheer torment of Hubert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn, or the druggy demimonde of William Burroughs, the skid row of Charles Bukowski. Nor is his work as relentlessly stark as that of Raymond Carver (an admirer). And if the Yates corpus contains a higher, more rarefied realm, there is none of that certain style and bite of J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield or the family Glass.
Yates' writing has always clearly had a distinct autobiographical timbre. The revelatory surprise of A Tragic Honesty is just how true-to-life Yates' output really was. His difficult, peripatetic childhood was underscored by his heavily-drinking parents, their early separation, his father's young death, and a painful stint at a private academy (brought to life in A Good School). Looming above it all was his mother Dookie: unstable, irresponsible, frequently inebriated, often delusional. The troubled Dookie is an immediately recognizable figure to anyone acquainted with Yates' fiction. (Most infamously, perhaps, in "Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired," where -- among other things -- the protagonist's drunken mother mistakenly climbs into his bed and then throws up.)
His life followed the typical generational trajectory: "he'd gone to war, [unflinchingly displayed in A Special Providence] skipped college, worked for a newspaper, and married young." An early neighbor was -- in one of the book's oddest nuggets -- the actor Will Geer, later to gain fame in old age as Grandpa Walton. As salaryman and participant in the "PR dodge," Yates -- improbably enough -- wrote for Food Field Reporter and then began "his long intermittent association with Remington Rand," the pioneering computer firm where the aspiring novelist penned "almost every word of Remington Rand's house organ, perhaps the only writing Yates ever did drunk."
Success came relatively early with Revolutionary Road, his artful, gripping work with the "deceptively simple language ... like the glassy surface of a deep and murky loch." But the critical acclaim didn't quite have the staying power to catapult Yates to the front ranks; the commercial success certainly not enough to make a living. Another magnum opus, the short-story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, failed to garner the acclaim that was more than its due.
Yates was quickly done in by twin factors: a personal instability of almost gothic proportions, and the quickly changing societal and artistic mores that rendered the more meat-and-potatoes Yates as "old hat," "passé." Casting about for work, he began a short stint as speechwriter for then attorney general, Robert Kennedy -- a rocky, ultimately short-lived association. If Yates' fiction is its usual reliable guide, he began by clearly proclaiming his allegiance to Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy's onetime rival for the 1960 Democratic nomination.
A interminable wait ensued for his follow-up to Revolutionary Road, "his credibility as a promising writer ... waning fast..." The result, A Special Providence, had the misfortune to be a World War II novel to appear in 1969 -- out of step, out of kilter.
A Tragic Honesty is unflinching in its survey of Yates' monumental self-destructiveness -- a private and all-too-visible public hell. "His breakdown at the 1962 Bread Loaf conference became part of the permanent lore of the place," erupting into "full-blown, roaring drunk psychosis..." An editor at the Atlantic Monthly Press "was backing out of the parking lot when he was startled by the sight of his firm's most promising author being led away in a straightjacket." And so it went, ad infinitum, as Yates began his steady, downward spiral of mental and physical disintegration, tragically morphing into "a consumptive, chain-smoking alcoholic" with the eventual "frightening symptoms of advanced alcoholism: epileptic seizures."
There were other sides to Richard Yates as well, evidenced by his coterie of genuine friends, handlers, and ministering angels. He could be a courtly, good-humored gentleman of grace and erudition, a peerless -- at times -- teacher of writing, and not without a sense of humor. But the accounts of Yates' life do get a bit numbing -- no fault at all of A Tragic Honesty -- but it is difficult to absorb the steady drumbeat of self-destruction and eventual collapse. "One night at the Newbury Steak House he lit his beard on fire and sat flapping his face with his hands." It is hard to know what to make of this, exactly. The end is stark and total, as a basically indigent Yates -- missing meals, breathing seriously impaired, drinking and smoking constantly -- spends his final days in poverty-ridden squalor.
The legacy of Richard Yates the man is best left to his family, spouses, associates, and friends. But his "strange and perfect" work has thankfully been dusted off and given the respect and attention that is so overdue. With insight and skill, A Tragic Honesty thoughtfully examines the entire Yates canon. Interested readers should, ultimately, disregard the more lurid personal details of a very tormented existence and turn, instead, to Richard Yates' published output -- an entirely fascinating, enduring mosaic. | August 2003
Richard Klin lives in New York's Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the Forward, Publishers Weekly, Parabola, Moment and the Web zine LIP. He has recently completed a novel.