Online Edition: Winter 2003/2004

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A Tragic Honesty

The Life and Work of Richard Yates

Blake Bailey

Picador ($35)

by Kathleen Andersen

Richard Yates could once be held up as the exemplar of the "writer's writer"--hailed by his peers as one of the greatest authors of the 20th century, but largely unread by the people he was so committed to writing about: ordinary Americans. This was a shame both for the many people who might have been moved by his work, and for Yates, who didn't choose obscurity. His style was direct, his subject matter fearless yet commonplace, and he longed for greater recognition and financial success, even daydreamed about sending his daughters to Harvard on book royalties. But despite a National Book Award nomination, an agent who never stopped working on his behalf, and the love of countless contemporary authors, Yates remained unknown.

A decade after his death, this seems finally to be changing, as Yates's readers old and new have been treated to a resurgence in his work. His fabulous first novel, Revolutionary Road, often hailed as his masterpiece, returned to print in 2000 and The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates followed a year later, bringing us all of his vast, wild short fiction together for the first time. Now Blake Bailey (The Sixties) has given us a comprehensive biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, tracking down school friends, lovers, ex-wives and drinking buddies to tell the very sad and sometimes bewildering story of Richard Yates's life.

While Yates's commitment to his writing never wavered, he suffered from occasional psychotic episodes that, along with alcoholism, general poor health and plain bad luck, left his personal life a shambles. Still, he was eternally hopeful and often seemed to be on the rise. Handsome and always tricked out in the Brooks Brothers suits he learned to wear during his days at an elite boys' high school, he was once hired as Robert Kennedy's speechwriter, and went several times to Hollywood, adapting William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness for the screen (everyone involved, especially Styron, was excited by the screenplay, but the project failed in spite of periodic efforts to revive it over the years).

Although Yates never went to college--and throughout his life was both scornful and envious of those who had--he was hired to teach at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where his students adored his gentle style (as well as his habit of ending classes early so that they could all go out for cocktails). Upon the publication of each of his novels and short story collections, the reviews suggested that he might finally break through as a popular and critical success--this never happened, but he never stopped believing that it could. Despite his optimism, Yates was often very much alone. His instability drove away many friends and lovers, he spent long periods of time far from the daughters whom he loved desperately, and he parted ways with his mother and sister after an unhappy childhood.

Bailey recognizes the part Yates played in creating some of his miseries, and captures the absurdities of his life in a way that his subject, who never lost his dark sense of humor, might have enjoyed. "In later life Yates would become almost a parody of the self-destructive personality: He smoked constantly despite tuberculosis, emphysema, and repeated bouts 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. Such behavior seems to indicate a death wish, but it wasn't that simple in Yates's case. It was true he had a gloomy temperament and was sometimes all but immobilized by depression, though often enough he was capable of high delight, and as for smoking and drinking--well, he liked smoking and drinking."

Turning to Yates's fiction in order to work through some of these rich contradictions, Bailey begins with the (unwritten) contention that his life and work are inseparable, that much of his fiction can be read as autobiography. This is not implausible, as Yates did use himself as a model for many of his characters, sometimes even naming characters after himself and people he knew in early drafts. He also subjected his characters to experiences he had himself, writing about isolated children, soldiers who questioned their courage, men killing time in tuberculosis wards, frustrated copywriters, people who married young and then found themselves trapped in the suburbs.

Bailey takes the connections he finds between the life and fiction far, often quoting from Yates's work, from his characters' internal monologues, as if they represent Yates's own thoughts and impressions. While he usually acknowledges doing so (phrases like "Yates speculated in a later story..." abound), at some moments the reader must turn to the end notes to determine whether Bailey's source is an interview, one of Yates's own letters, or a section from Yates's fiction, his imagination. This treatment of the work is provocative, a choice that might be supported (or at least explained) in the book, but it is never discussed. It is also a bit odd in a biography so impeccably researched, and otherwise written with great delicacy.

Thus, the book raises questions about the links between an artist's experiences and his writing life. Even when an author draws from personal experience, is it fair to read the fiction in this way? What is lost and what is gained, for the biographer, the reader, and the artist? After all, Yates's genius as a writer stems from his vision of everyday life, and his willingness to grapple with all of its painful and petty aspects, from small humiliations on the job to the ambivalence found in the closest of relationships. While Bailey does his readers a great service in providing this biography at a time when his work is happily coming back, Yates's work is in some ways reduced by the suggestion that so much of it can be traced directly back to his own life.

Despite this, A Tragic Honesty will hold pleasures and surprises for those who love Yates's fiction. It conveys a sense of his complexity as a person, and more importantly, as an author. Richard Yates worked almost every day for half a century, writing stories beautiful enough to break your heart, fully realized and empathetic visions of people living out their own complex and difficult lives. His life's final irony lies in missing his own renaissance, but those who have a chance to read his work should revel in it.

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Winter 2003/2004 Table of Contents