Mon November 10, 2003
A Tragic Honesty
In conversation, Yates was courteous, but not very communicative. Since he smoked four packs a day, had terminal emphysema, and had had pneumonia, pleurosis, and tuberculosis, he had little breath to spare.
By Don Noble
In August of 1990, the fiction writer Richard Yates came to Tuscaloosa to take the Coal Royalty Chair in Creative Writing. He finished the semester and then, finding Tuscaloosa both pleasant and inexpensive, stayed among us until his death at the VA Hospital on November 7, 1992. Few of us here knew much about him or came to know him very well, but he became a familiar sight on University Boulevard, driving along in his decrepit Mazda with an oxygen tank on the seat of next to him and a cigarette in his mouth.
In conversation, Yates was courteous, but not very communicative. Since he smoked four packs a day, had terminal emphysema, and had had pneumonia, pleurosis, and tuberculosis, he had little breath to spare. Now his biography has been written, by Blake Bailey, and it possible to know Yates with some depth. What one learns is often sad.
Bailey begins, ?If the prerequisite of any great writer?s life is an unhappy childhood, then Richard Yates was especially blessed.? Both his parents were alcoholics and divorced when he was young. His mother, known as Dookie, was a not very successful bohemian sculptress, usually in Greenwich Village, who went off in the evenings, often came home with company, and on at least one occasion got into bed with her seven-year-old and vomited onto his pillow. Yates grew up with great ambivalence toward his mother.
Drafted at 18, Yates was sent to Europe where he fought through the last winter of World War II.
Yates, like his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald, of whom he was an unabashed worshipper, was extraordinarily handsome as a young man. His features, like Fitzgerald?s, bordered, he thought, on the effeminate, so a cigarette and a drink would make him look more manly. Yates was an alcoholic by his middle twenties and, according to numerous interviews, mainly impotent by forty.
After the war, Yates should have gone to college on the GI Bill but didn?t, emulating in this case Hemingway, not Fitzgerald. He did some P.R. work and then was hired to write civil rights speeches for Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, but Yates mainly labored at this fiction, producing in 1961 what is regarded as his masterpiece, Revolutionary Road, his novel of suburban, middle-class despair and self-deception.
In a spectacular piece of bad luck, the competition for the 1961 National Book Award included Catch-22, by Heller, Franny and Zooey, by Salinger, The Pawnbroker, by Wallant, and the prize was won by The Moviegoer, Walker Percy?s first novel. Would things have gone differently if Revolutionary Road had taken the prize? Who can say?
Yates was grievously disappointed but stayed at his work, and in spite of his drinking, smoking, and other self-inflicted wounds, two divorces, alimony and child support, suffering from bipolar disorder, and being hospitalized numerous times for physical and mental illness, he managed to write seven more books of fiction. When UA professor and novelist Allen Wier cleared out Yates? apartment, he found in the freezer the uncompleted manuscript of his aptly named work in progress, Uncertain Times.
This biography is doing, ironically enough, what the Mizener biography did for Fitzgerald. It is sparking a posthumous Yates revival. Revolutionary Road has been reissued with an introduction by Richard Ford and is wildly praised by William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut, lifetime Yates supporters. Revolutionary Road may finally take its place on the top shelf with the work Cheever and Updike. One might say that it is all too late for Yates to enjoy, but maybe it?s not. After all, Richard Yates wrote slowly, carefully, for the ages.
Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.