I just read this, Richard Yates’s “major” Hollywood story. It just so happens that a couple of weeks ago I was hanging out with a group of parents, and one of them had recently read Revolutionary Road. He’s a screenwriter, and he mentioned that he had heard that Yates had written a story that exactly captures Hollywood, with settings and scenes that any film person would immediately recognize. I had just read and written about Disturbing the Peace and how it is quietly and even secretly a classic Hollywood novel, and I thought that must have been what he was talking about. But “Saying Goodbye to Sally” wasn’t on my radar at the time, and it’s obviously the story in question.
SGtG has all the standard elements and markings of a great Yates story. It seems simple and effortless, but it’s complex and concise. It’s autobiographical, almost directly so, and yet Yates does an extremely interesting thing with his persona/self: he’s consciously mirroring his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald, to an extraordinary degree. The amazing thing is that Yates is a mature and accomplished artist, and as he writes the story he’s looking back at the time in his own life when he was adrift after a critical success written with his own heart’s blood that made him little money, when he went out to get ahead financially in the film business. He was keenly aware of the Fitzgerald parallels at the time, but he deftly weaves his consciousness of them into the narrative, including a brilliant bit towards the end about his furtive obsession:
On their last evening, seated in what Edgar Todd had solemnly promised them was the finest restaurant in Los Angeles, she looked disconsolate as she picked at her crabmeat Imperial. “This is kind of dumb, isn’t it?” she said “Spending all this money when you’ll be on the plane in a couple of hours anyway?”
“Doesn’t seem dumb to me. I thought it might be nice.” He had thought too that it might be the kind of thing F. Scott Fitzgerald would have done at a time like this, but he kept that part of it to himself. He had tried for years to prevent anyone from knowing the full extent of his preoccupation with Fitzgerald, though a girl in New York had once uncovered it in a relentless series of teasing, bantering questions with nothing to hide.
The key element in the story, with all of its rich Fitgerald overtones, is the self-destructiveness of Jack Fields, the central character. Yates writes about the time when it was just beginning to dawn on him that he was dark, morose, and difficult, ill-starred in some way that he couldn’t quite understand, and unable to help himself. Consciousness of his penchant for conflict and rejection, by both himself and others, was only going to spiral downwards and make things worse, and he wrote this story after he had already lived through the darkest of days. Yates begins the story with a view of his disgusting New York basement apartment, and the horror his two young daughters experienced visiting him. He comes to LA and likes Malibu and “Oppenheimer’s” sunny life with his girlfriend, and he tries to achieve the same kind of set up. But he discovers that his beach apartment is dark and wet, moldy and unhealthy, and he slowly becomes convinced of his self-destructive nature. His happiness is doomed before he even finds the girl. And Sally, the girl, is more of a victim of place than she is of character and temperment. They can’t stay at Jack’s place, for the reasons mentioned, so they have to go to Sally’s home at Jill Jarvis’ house, which is spiritually unhealthy and no good at all for a budding relationship and Jack and his thirst for alcohol. SGtS is bittersweet and pure Fitzgerald all the way through, and that’s Yates’s obvious intention. The problem isn’t Sally, it’s him, it’s bad timing, it’s a bright poolside Bacchanalian world where it’s impossible to be good. Sally was great, they could have had something that was real and lasting, but he knew from Fitzgerald that they were never going to make it, they never had a chance.
It’s important, I think, to set SGtG next to Disturbing the Peace: this is obvious enough. DtP has the layers and darker depths of a descent into hell, the deeper regions of which are found in Hollywood, while SGtG is just the drive from Beverly Hills out to Malibu and back, the inferno’s first circle. Is it The Hobbit to Lord of the Rings? (Ha!) or a minor Portrait and Ulysses, written by Chekhov in Hollywood? I have to wonder, if I was ever allowed in an actual classroom, what it would be like to read SGtG first, and then DtP. And I wonder as well, of course, which one Yates wrote first. Was SGtG a warm up for DtP, which gave Yates the confidence to write The Easter Parade, or did he come back and do SGtG after he had expelled the DtP demons? Thanks to Bailey, it’s easy enough to find out.
But it’s also interesting, in terms of sequencing, to notice the intensity of Yates’s program of autobiographical fiction, and the way it does a lot of heavy lifting for the biographer. People are going to approach Yates in all sorts of different ways, especially now with the big movie coming out. There will be purists, like Mookse and Gripes (see blogroll), who intend to read Yates from beginning to end in order. Some will want to read more primary texts before they read the biography, and I’m noticing in the blogging world that a lot of people don’t have much of a taste for literary biography; some do, some don’t. Formalism and New Criticism run deep by definition and have trained and influenced a lot of readers and made them especially keen to keep their literary impressions pristine. If you’re reading this blog you probably know I’m not like that. I can make it through two or maybe three of an author’s books, probably their established best books at that, before I have to know more about them. So I read RevRoad, The Easter Parade, and 11 Kinds and then Bailey’s very fine biography. I mention all this because when I get around to reading SGtG I already know about Yates’s unhealthy Malibu apartment and how he worked on the script for Lie Down in Darkness with Frankenheimer. I suppose I would want to read all of the novels and stories first if I loved Yates and thought about writing a biography–if I was Bailey. It would be a fun challenge to sort through what’s fact and what’s fiction, and Bailey has already done a masterful job of it. It’s not that I have a “biographical regret” either. You quickly forget a lot of the details of a long biography, and the nice thing is to know that they’re there if you need them. So I know that Bailey was able to lift Yates’s description of the Malibu apartment pretty cleanly, along with some Frankenheimer details, and even the story of his daughters and the cockroaches in his New York apartment. But now I can look to see if Bailey has anything about Jill Jarvis and her world, and I vaguely remember the historical antecedent of Sally herself, who might even be alive–not to mention Woody and young “Alan Jarvis.” Kicker is out there somewhere, about my own age I would guess.
When I read DtP, as another example, about two or three months after reading Bailey, I knew about Yates going crazy, and perhaps had something of an impression of his Bellevue stint, and maybe even his struggles during his later sojourn in LA. But when you read DtP you get the full power of the experience, and now, weeks later, I have a keen feeling of what it was like for Yates to have been locked up in Bellevue and how he walked the streets of LA absorbed in delusions of grandeur. Yates has the extraordinary power to give these experiences crystalline clarity and he makes them unforgettable. And that power is at work, of course, in SGtG, in virtually every thought and memory and scene. The prizewinner, perhaps, is Jack Fields setting himself apart and getting disdainfully smashed as Jill Jarvis charms Cliff Myers, Fields stumbling upstairs and passing out on the floor of Jill’s bedroom, and then hearing Jill and Cliff’s dialogue as they come in the room and step over him and start groping each other. Jill has met Cliff just two hours before this, and his young wife (35) died of a massive heart attack just 48 hours before that. What a scene! The shame, the degradation, the loathing, all of it are quite palpable. That’s Yates for you, and it shows just how easily fiction or memoir trumps biography, and only a ninny would worry about the problem. No one needs biography to read literature, but no one needs to be afraid of it either.
But let me go back to setting SGtG next to DtP. The intriguing thing in SGtG is Yates’s odd sort of “knowing innocence,” and the way that writing in Hollywood creates that form of consciousness. I think I very much experienced this myself, once upon a time. e If SGtG is a Portrait, it’s a Portrait of the Artist as a Young Screenwriter/Novelist. SGtG is a picnic compared to DtP, Jack Fields an easy-going model citizen and paragon of stability compared to Jack Wilder. Fields knows how to write and has had creative and critical success, but he’s afraid that he doesn’t know how to live, and he doesn’t know how to get ahead and get along in Hollywood. Fields has a dream of having Oppenheimer’s life, but he ends up lost in the funhouse mansion of Jill Jarvis. Fields knows that he’s going to mess it all up, based on his familiarity with the failure of Fitzgerald, but he can’t quite predict where it’s all going to go wrong and he’s incapable of stopping the slide. He’s as messed up as everybody else, and he fears that he’s the worst of them. This is an intriguing inversion of the idea that Yates is Frank Wheeler with talent. What happens to that character, what happens to Yates, to Jack fields, after he’s written his book and nothing about his daily life and surroundings has really changed, and he knows the degradation is setting in and going to catch up with him. Fields is Yates is Wheeler-with-talent, and he ends up in a stupor on the floor watching Jill Jarvis seduce Cliff Myers, watches as Woody quietly goes with Kicker to the garage to pour gasoline into a tub to wipe off the glue from the “practical joke” with the roses. And let’s not miss or ignore just how deeply the relationships in SGtG are pure Fitzgerald: Jack Fields moves into the decadent party mansion, and Jill Jarvis, the empty girl with everything, hunts down the “remarkable man,” Cliff Myers: “…he drives himself harder than any man I’ve ever know. Give him two or three more years and he’ll be the most prominent engineering exectutive in LA, if not in all California.” Except he won’t make it. His wife dies suddenly, and Fields gets to witness how a promising, driven, ambitious man with a deep wound will succumb to decadence, how life and fate strike out mercilessly against the best of us and how quickly promise can turn to degradation, betrayal, and shame. Myers is a baby Gatsby, and Yates has fun setting up his story and characters along parallel lines, subtly enough that it’s easy to miss, more than obvious enough once you see it–how hard that is to do! It’s master craftsmanship, the worst of personal pain turned into the best of fiction. The intriguing thing is that Yates knew so much more than any of us about Fitzgerald that we can’t even begin to find all of the echoes: mansion and all, SGtG is a much deeper reading of Fitzgerald than we might think at first.
And my screenwriter friend was right–the settings are quite recognizable. My friend lives on the beach in Malibu, so he should have a good time with that. Another friend used to be the manager of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, where Jack and Sally have their first and last drink, and I’ve hung out with him in the suite where Warren Beatty lived through the Shampoo decade, and the one where Michael Jackson dropped water balloons down onto the street–“you don’t understand, it’s not the kids doing it, it’s him!” The one false note in the story is when characters like Sally say “Beverly” as a short form for Beverly Hills–no one has ever done that. And I know that because this story, and Jill Jarvis’ mansion, is exactly where I grew up, further up the canyon from “the shallow grade that forms the first residential part of Beverly Hills, before the steeper slopes begin.” I knew all sorts of kids like Kicker, and probably played sports with Kicker himself at my boyhood home-away-from-home, the Beverly Hills YMCA. A funny place to spend one’s youth, and here I am still today. Oops–look at the time!–got to go off to work at the studio. Ciao.