Posted by: zhiv | August 16, 2008

Richard Yates: A Tragic Honesty, by Blake Bailey

It’s time to check back in on the progress of “the year of Yates,” which will climax with the release of the film version of Revolutionary Road in December’s Oscar sweepstakes.  If x number of readers (and lots of writers) were aware of Yates and had read his masterpiece by January 08, then that number will be increased 100 or 1000 times or more by January 09 after Sam Mendes, Leo and Kate have their way with the material.  And now, in mid-August, the film sitting quietly and comfortably in the digital can, we’ve made it past the blockbuster season and are in the midst of lower budget late summer comedy and family fodder.  In September the film business will take its annual turn towards seriousness, first with a variety of independent films and some opportunistic, lesser studio fare, heading towards another spate of “big” movies at the end of the year, with the studio prestige movies and Oscar-bait mixed in.  While it’s not quite time yet to think about actually seeing the RevRoad film, it is about time for the trailer to appear in front of other movies and to start building awareness and anticipation.  If the trailer’s ready, it should be playing in front of Brideshead Revisited, for instance.  Hollywood is about to start selling Richard Yates. 

And with that awareness will come readers of the novel.  If my own experience and approach to things is even slightly representative, there will be a lot of people who will be intrigued to read the book before they see the movie.  Eugene Novikov at wrote on July 2nd: 

“Have you read Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates? Huh? You have? Then why the hell haven’t you told me about it? What’s your problem, anyway? And where has this book been all my life?

There’s a movie version of Revolutionary Road on the way, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and directed by Sam Mendes. It’s set to be released at Christmastime, and is widely expected to be a major player in the Oscar race. But here I have to betray this column’s reason for being. F*** the movie. Read the book.”

There will be a particular and not insignificant cultural class that will be curious about why they’ve never heard of this book and this writer before.  And the funny thing is how they will be astonished and blown away by RevRoad, as Eugene and I were.  And we’ll get to see how they react to contracting Yates Fever, in both mild and more virulent forms.

Certain hard cases like myself will go through The Easter Parade and the stories and eventually make their way to Blake Bailey’s “A Tragic Honesty,” which is a reasonable marker for a higher level of interest and examination.  Who was this Yates guy really?  Bailey’s is the only “big book” on Yates, although it should be interesting to see how Yates will be treated by writers and critics over the next ten or twenty years, after the deluge.  Bailey gets the job done, however, and then some.  I believe Bailey’s biography is in print in paperback–a quick check shows that it’s readily available at Amazon, and there are some very telling laudatory “comments” from its publication in 2003 (there’s a new category I haven’t really explored in depth before–Amazon comments/reviews.  Hmmm.) 

First, it must be said that Bailey took on a substantial and significant task and did a splendid job.  He found a challenging, wonderful, and horribly neglected subject, and in one bold stroke he has established himself as a notable literary biographer.

I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in obscure blognooks, pleasant reflections on the subject of my unwritten dissertation, Leslie Stephen, whose life and work and friend of mine once called “an inexhaustible resource that is virtually untapped.”  Yates may not have a massive body of work, but its level of quality and insight is extraordinarily high, and its depths still seem to be partially uncharted and generally underappreciated.  And his work turns out to be intensely autobiographical, in very complex ways, and this contributes in an almost exponential way to Bailey’s chosen task.  Bailey must have had a great enthusiasm for his subject, which should have sustained him through the trials of research and composition, knowing that Yates was worthy but obscure, and Bailey’s challenge was to unravel his sotry and bring it to the light.  Apparently Bailey completed his work in the relatively short span of a few years, and his emphasis was on research and basic truths and biographical storytelling, avoiding the pitfalls of esoteric criticism, although he does make a fairly careful study of Yates’ devotion to his craft.  This is all professional and rather Yatesian, actually–the pursuit of a straightforward realism, and even “a tragic honesty” as signpost for biographical method.  One comment at Amazon said that the biography reads a bit like one of Yates’ books, which shouldn’t really be a surprise–but perhaps this is commonly true of well-written literary biography, as the subject and his assumptions and style can have a strong effect on the narrative and narrator.

As with Yates’ fiction,  much of the lifestory here is devastating and excrutiating.  It’s a story of depression and despair that stretches over the post war decades that I’ve been reading about all year.  Yates’ literary journey is especially solitary, and it’s chilling to go over the list of recent reads to think about how they completely fail to intersect with Yates:  Capote and Warhol, Baldwin, Mary McCarthy and the entire Partisan Review/New Yorker/NYRofB crowd–who am I forgetting?  Yates was working slowly and finding his way through the 50s, and his big book was published at about the same moment that McCarthy, older, capped and effectively ended her career with The Group.  Capote was a boy wonder who also wrote his last great book, In Cold Blood, around the same time.

In writing about The Easter Parade I mentioned how the characters in the novel are battered and ancient as they barely manage to stumble to the age of 50 (and I’m turning 50 myself around the time the RevRoad movie comes out, so I suppose I care about this), and in this biography you get to see this type of life up close and watch it unfold in slow-mo degradation.  It isn’t pretty at all, and is in fact a daily-weekly-monthly-yearly horror show, and if you’ve grown up in an alcoholic family or lived for an extended period of time with a drinker, you have an idea of how it goes.  The second half of Yates’ life is a big drunken mess, and Bailey does a commendable job of sorting through the wreckage and filth with an unflinching eye.  His narrative never loses interest, perhaps because Yates himself managed to hold onto his talent, creative integrity, and even a faint and false hope for recognition throuh all the long years of his struggle just to live and get by, let alone write.

One thing that we learn in reading the biography, although I believe this appears in some of Yates’ work that I haven’t read yet, is that Yate’s wasn’t just dealing with fierce alcoholism, and compulsive smoking with lungs which were ruined in the war, but full-blown mental inllness, babbling psychotic breaks.  Yet another manic-depressive writer shouldn’t come as a surprise, I suppose, but it does seem interesting–it interests me at least, deeply–that Yates was such a sophisticated and careful craftsman and deeply committed realist, rather than a seer or a visionary.  Of course he did have his own “vision,” and worked endlessly at expressing it.  One of the beauties and strengths of Bailey’s book is the way that it reveals the autobiographical elements of Yates’ fiction steadily and carefully, never allowing them to overwhelm the primary narrative.  For myself, who hadn’t ready any Yates before this spring, there are the expected and welcome details of his own tenure in suburbia and his time at Remington Rand, the model for “Knox Business Machines” in RevRoad, and the sad lives of his mother and sister, outlined with such relentless power in The Easter Parade.  Unlike Frand and April Wheeler, Yates and his first wife Sheila made it to Europe so that he could walk the hard road of learning how to write.  And there are a lot of life details that Yates wrote about in stories and novels I haven’t gotten to yet, which is just as well, since I’m at the stage of savoring Yates, not in a hurry to read it all and in fact feeling just the opposite, sad that there’s a limited amount left and most of his best works may be behind me. 

One ongoing surprise for me was the autobiographical elements in the stories.  I never managed to write a post after I read his first stories, collected in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a couple of months ago.  And more recently I read the next two or three pieces in the “Collected Stories,” starting with “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired.”  Yates hit a long block and sophomore funk after publishing RevRoad, lasting more or less through the 60s, though he worked on civil rights with Bobby Kennedy and turned Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness into a screenplay.  During this time his approach to writing stories changed, and the next set clearly belongs to his later work.  “Oh Joseph” is virtually a memoir, although its craftsmanship as fiction is exquisite.  In Bailey’s book we get the details behind the earlier stories.  The one that sticks with me is “No Pain Whatsoever,” told primarily from the perspective of a wife visiting her sick husband (a Yates figure) at the vet hospital, showing the compelling circumstances leading to her infidelity.  Bailey’s version of Yates’ first marriage is clear enough as far as Yates himself is concerned, creating a general sense of disharmony and conflict, but we only get scattered looks at his wife Sheila and her own version of the story.  This makes sense, however, because we’re following the track of multiple struggles:  the general struggle of the marriage; of Yates’ poor post-war health and growing self-destructive bent; of his effort to support a family; and most interestingly, his attempt to pursue and master his craft, write stories and finally begin a novel.

Bailey has written a very fine, invaluable book that will hold up extremely well through the coming deluge, and it will actually shape a good deal of the current and future thought and consideration of Yates.  For anyone like me who is belatedly getting to know Yates, and who likes to learn about the writer’s life and sourcepoints, Bailey’s book is especially welcome and of the moment, with a balanced contemporary perspective and knowing touch, a really good read all the way through.

Just to finish, one of the more surprising and ironic things that we learn from Bailey is how Yates spent a good part of the last 10-20 dark years of his dark life with a vague hope that Revolutionary Road would be made into a film, rescue him from obscurity, ease his financial pressures and allow him to leave behind a modest legacy.  In Bailey’s biography we get the details of his Kennedy speechwriting, and his work as a writing teacher at Iowa and elsewhere, and all sorts of interesting episodes.  But Yates also has his own screenwriting/Hollywood chapter–it’s actually more of a Malibu/John Frankenheimer episode, and it’s as thwarted and futile as all the rest.  The primary thrust of it over time, however, is that Yates knew all too well that RevRoad was a transcendent work of art and highly cinematic, and through his extended trials he maintained the faintest optimism that the movie version would somehow come together.  Working in the film business, I’m always troubled by the months and years that pass by without any product at all, and the inferiority of the material that survives the gauntlet.  Yates’ story is an especially haunting version of this phenomenon, writ large now that the film will appear soon enough, but much too late to ease the pain of its creator.


  1. You are an interesting, thorough-minded reader. Any serious writer, like Yates, believes you exist, in whatever numbers; but it is heartening to discover you for real here.

  2. Thanks for this. I just finished reading the book myself, and have never been so devastated by such characters.

  3. I’d like to get my hands on a copy of the short stories and of course Easter Parade at some point. This is such a thorough post on Yates (and now my second time reading it), Zhiv, thank you for all the careful details and interesting thoughts. I have to admit I’m resigning myself that the movie will not live up to the book, but at least that way I’ll be pleasantly surprised if its really good.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: