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Book Review: A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work of Richard Yates by Blake Bailey

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To say that Richard Yates lived a troubled life would be an understatement. In fact, after learning of his life, it is easy to see just where he got all his material, and why he writes so well about alcoholics. In many ways his troubles were not only cliché (the tortured, depressed, lonely, mentally unstable, financially struggling artist that no one appreciates or understands), they were also self-induced.

Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work of Richard Yates is easily one of the most readable biographies on a writer I’ve read, where the narrative is both thorough yet not turgid and too weighed down by facts. Born in 1926, Yates was brought up in a rather modest upbringing, and was also the son of an alcoholic mother. He had one sister, Ruth, who later suffered the fate of alcoholism herself; so clearly Yates was not the only one who inherited the problem. His constant smoking, drinking, and lack of exercise eventually led to his physical demise, and he often lived in dank and poorly lighted squalor, writing at a small desk surrounded by both living and dead roaches. One might have to ask, was this really necessary? Objectively speaking, it ultimately is his work that matters in the end – that he wrote his books while lonely, hacking a cough and surrounded by vermin and their droppings is beside the point, but after reading about it, pulling out the old dust mop suddenly doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

Though setting all this aside, much of what A Tragic Honesty focuses on are the novels and short stories for which Yates is known, though he was somewhat an underappreciated writer in his day. He lost the National Book Award, (but at least was nominated one might claim), he never in his lifetime got a story published in The New Yorker (yet regularly appeared in The Atlantic and Esquire), and his books never sold more than 12,000 copies (except for The Easter Parade, which sold more than 100,000 in paperback, and was noted by many critics and writers, including a mention in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters). Although one can appreciate Yates’ dislike for pretension, his craving for fame and approbation does begin to annoy, as does his obsession for Fitzgerald. With Yates, everything goes back to The Great Gatsby, and I don’t know what it is with writers who feel the need to bow to those that came before them, but sorry, Yates is better than Fitzgerald. Too bad he never realized that while he was alive.

Bailey does a good job balancing both the artist and art, and though the book finishes at over 600 pages, its mammoth size should not deter. Anyone who is familiar with Yates’ work will not only be given background and a mental timeline as to when those works were written, they will also be given Yates’ personal and situational state of mind at the time of those works. After Revolutionary Road, it took Yates eight years to finish his second published novel, A Special Providence, which is actually a book Yates detested. Some of the rejections he received from popular magazines can be either painful or encouraging, depending on one’s outlook, and the namedropping of popular writers from the '50s and '60s that no one remembers now and are all out of print are amusing, considering Yates spent so much of his time pissing and moaning about not being famous enough.

A Tragic Honesty is a really good bio to read not only for any Yates admirer, but for any struggling writer out there who gets depressed seeing the names of mediocre talents filling the shelves, while more deserving ones (like Yates, Irwin Shaw, and Loren Eiseley) are cast aside. The life and work of Richard Yates should be proof that quality always rises in the end and that hype and marketing are just shallow things. Anyone can be “one of the strongest voices writing today” if some dingbat PR person claims it is so.

Though I say to all those uncreative hangers on: just give it time, and see where the work will land. Richard Yates is proof yet again that time (not man) is the leveler of all things, and that he was just as much a great writer when he was alive and hacking a cough in his roach infested squalor as he is now, in midst of his due. It wasn’t Richard Ford’s praising of Revolutionary Road that made it a great book, anymore than it was Emerson praising Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that made him a great poet. The work is great regardless if anyone chooses to pay attention to it or not.

Having said all that, it is too bad that Yates let the ephemera of awards and shallow recognition hinder his moods, forcing him to drink more, and allowing it to provoke his mental anguish and instability. It is too bad too that he allowed alcoholism to destroy his relationships, his marriages, and even to some degree (though I can only speculate on this) his creative work. Months before his death, his body took a turn for the worse and he could barely breathe, and ultimately could not finish his final novel. Though the man left behind a body of work that needs to be revisited by readers for years to come. And something tells me that time is on his side. Good work, Richard. Troubled you were, but certainly not tragic. You did your job and yes, time is most definitely on your side.

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  • http://www.dewitthenry.com DeWitt Henry

    Bailey’s biography ranks with Carlos Baker’s on Hemingway, and is remarkable for telling Yates’s life so much in Yates’s own words, a tactic that doesn’t work as well in his new Cheever biography. I hope you read Yates’s collected stories! Here is a succinct review of Revolutionary Road, followed by an interview with his daughter Monica (where she points out that Yates and Shiela, his first wife, DID get to Paris).