Monday, February 1, 2021


There are writers who drink and drinkers who write, and then there's Richard Yates, who spent a lifetime blurring the distinction. Habitues of Boston's Crossroads Irish Pub in the 1980s might've been shocked to learn that the skinny old barfly who seemed to live in one of the booths was in fact 'America's least known great writer,' the author of at least three undeniably superlative works of fiction: his first novel, Revolutionary Road, the follow-up story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (great title too), and his 1976 Bicentennial fireworks display, The Easter Parade. That he was also a chronic alcoholic and frequent mental patient who once, in the grips of manic psychosis, stripped naked and ran around a friend's house urinating on the walls... well, that might have surprised the Crossroaders not at all.

Biographer Blake Bailey (whose life of Yates I've just read while awaiting the spring publication of his expected-to-be-definitive biography of Philip Roth) here demonstrates a near-Yatesian eye for the telling detail, the kind of symbolic image Yates eliotically referred to as an "objective correlative":

Work on his war novel had come to a dead end, and at one point he became so desperate that he blamed it on his table. "It's too high," he told Grace Schulman. "I need to get over my writing...." So he sawed the legs down, to no avail. (256)

He sawed the legs down, to no avail. Richard Yates's tombstone--if he had one; as of 2003, he didn't--might have worn that sentence as an epitaph. For Bailey's Yates is a physical and psychological basket case who spent much of his life sawing off his own legs. Given the drinking, the smoking, the tuberculosis, the accidental incineration of his New York apartment, and the long, dreary catalog of hospitalizations and relapses, it seems nearly miraculous that Yates could write his name on a check. That he produced nine estimable works of fiction almost beggars credulity.

Until, that is, one reflects that his always autobiographical fiction might have functioned for Yates in the way psychotherapy works for the less talented. He spent most of his life angrily deriding and avoiding psychotherapy, preferring to gobble psychotropics and neutralize their effects with a whiskey chaser (that old leg-saw buzzing again...). (He did finally undergo analysis in the 1970s, but it was fruitless--a failure the doctor attributed to his drinking.) In his fiction, however, he returned to his earlier years, his childhood, youth, early adulthood, and examined them, through the protective screen of fictionality, with the coldest of eyes. Bailey is anything but a 'psychobiographer,' but his book portrays a Yates in perpetual psychological flight from his grandiose, deluded, Bohemian mother. And as is the entirely predictable nature of such things--a tragic trajectory older than Sophocles--the thing he flees is exactly the thing he becomes. This son of an unappreciated, itinerant artist with money woes and mental problems becomes exactly an unappreciated itinerant artist with money problems and mental woes. Determined to avoid his mother's life, he repeats it as exactly as he can. Although Bailey's biography is not nearly so good as a novel by Richard Yates, it is every bit as sadly fucking tragic.

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