A heavy price

A Tragic Honesty: the life and work of Richard Yates

Blake Bailey <em>Methuen, 671pp, £25</em>


Since his death in 1992, Richard Yates has become famous for being America's "least famous great writer". Memorial essays by Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Ford, widespread reprints of his novels and a bestselling collection of his short stories have all appeared, each based on the premise that Yates's work deserves wider attention. His writing was mentioned in a film by Woody Allen; he even provided the inspiration for Elaine's father in Seinfeld. Now, with the publication of Blake Bailey's exhaustive, compulsively readable biography, it is perhaps time to stop bemoaning Yates's anonymity. A dozen years after dying penniless and alone in a dingy flat, Yates has finally arrived at the very pinnacle of postwar American fiction.

Not that he was all that far from the top when he was alive. Yates was always one step away from equalling the success of peers such as John Updike, Philip Roth and Norman Mailer. His remarkable first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), was shortlisted for the National Book Award, only to lose out to another first-timer, Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. Subsequent books were hailed as providing that "breakthrough", but each time something - a bad review in the New York Times, an abandoned film adaptation, some subtle shift in the winds of literary fashion - kept him from achieving a broad readership.

His own fractured personality did not help. Although tall, handsome and naturally charming, Yates was also a volatile alcoholic who was frequently in and out of mental institutions. Almost certainly bipolar, he consumed vast quantities of drink in an apparent attempt to self-medicate himself into some rickety semblance of normality. Although this allowed him to keep writing, it inflicted a terrible toll on his personal life, wrecking two marriages, countless friendships and nearly every job he ever had. (Curiously, one of the few employers who forgave his excesses was Bobby Kennedy, whom Yates served as a speechwriter in the early 1960s.)

Detailing the grim toll of this conduct, Bailey's biography is as merciless as Yates's notoriously steely-eyed fiction. From his childhood with a pretentious, drunken mother to his struggles as an unpublished writer in Eisenhower-era New York, Yates's early years are shown to be an apprenticeship in pain. By the time he began to publish, he was already displaying symptoms of the decay that would overwhelm his later years. A residency at the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, for instance, ended abruptly after Yates was found on a dormitory roof, screaming that he was Christ. During his last decade he was scarcely distinguishable from a street person, living in "crepuscular", roach-infested apartments, smoking five packs of cigarettes a day, unable to clean his beard, "matted with drool and snot". When drunk (which was often), he was abusive, racist, misogynistic and homophobic, the sort who shouts down the phone in the middle of the night but recalls nothing of it the following day.

Yet Yates inspired tremendous loyalty among friends, lovers, students and, especially, fellow writers. This was partly for fairly obvious reasons: women liked to mother him; men found him an ideal drinking companion. But there was more to it than that. From very early in his career, Yates earned a reputation among his peers as someone who was willing to pay great personal costs in order to create emotionally honest work. The critic Robert Towers wrote that it was "as if Yates were under some enchantment that compelled him to keep circling the same half-acre of pain". To many, he was (and remains) an artistic pioneer, willing to venture again and again into the most dangerously wretched parts of his soul in order to come up with the beautiful, melancholy prose that informs such works as The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

His heroes, male or female, tend to mirror his own troubled psyche closely, whether they are would-be artists such as Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, crushed under the weight of suburban America and his own inadequacies, or promising young women such as Emily Grimes in The Easter Parade, exiled in desultory middle age because she cannot give up her illusions. As Bailey points out, the only other character from Yates's life who consistently informed his writing was his mother, Ruth - a would-be sculptress (or "art bum") and sloppy alcoholic who appears in several thin guises in his work. Keep-ing her wretched memory so vividly alive was not exactly a recipe for mental well-being.

The best thing about Bailey's biography is his even-handed presentation of both the good and bad Yates, the artist and the brute. While his readings of Yates's work range from inspired to flat-footed, his evocation of the gritty matter of his life is consistently penetrating. Like Yates, Bailey has an eye for detail, such as when the novelist's two eldest daughters travel to collect his possessions after his death in a far-flung Alabama college town, only to wind up with little more than the numerous coins he'd dropped on his apartment floor over countless drunken nights. "On the plane back to New York, Monica and Sharon sat putting the loose change into rolls. 'Our inheritance!' they laughed. 'The family fortune!'" Readers, on the other hand, are left with the great fortune of Yates's unforgettable fiction. It is evidence of Bailey's immense skill that he illuminates how the daughters' pittance and our bounty are deeply, sadly, inextricably bound.

Stephen Amidon's new novel, Human Capital, will be published by Viking in January

This article first appeared in the 22 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Police state