Feb/Mar 2009

No Success Like Failure

From the wreckage of his life, Richard Yates salvaged a few good books

Daphne Merkin


Posthumous literary reputations are tricky affairs, as is the appellation “a writer’s writer.” It might be said that both serve a compensatory function, making up for a less than obliging reality by suggesting an artistic worthiness that doesn’t translate into popular appeal. Such is the case of Richard Yates, once neglected and now celebrated, who died from emphysema at the age of sixty-six on November 7, 1992, after years of smoking four packs a day, alcoholism, and general bipolar calamitousness (including one early suicide attempt and intermittent breakdowns).

Yates enjoyed brief visibility and acclaim with the publication in 1961 of his first—and indubitably best—novel, Revolutionary Road, which was praised by William Styron, Alfred Kazin, and Dorothy Parker and nominated for the National Book Award. (It lost out to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer.) A 1962 collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, was well reviewed but did not sell, and then came a seven-year interim before he delivered his second novel, A Special Providence, which made few critical waves and sold miserably. Over the ensuing decades, Yates came to be perceived as a writer who had failed to deliver on his promise, despite five more novels and another volume of stories. (The Collected Stories of Richard Yates was posthumously published in 2001.)

Then again, Yates’s evocation of an insistently disappointing world epitomized by ’50s suburbia—one of bright hopes and desolate outcomes, of marriage begun in a romantic haze and ended in disenchanted lucidity, of talent unrealized or delusionally pursued—was never that alluring to begin with. Indeed, one might dismiss him as a Gloomy Gus who had happened to wander into what he described as “this crazy, obsessive business of trying to be a good writer,” the better to impose his intractably black vision on a captive audience. Dismiss him as a man possessed of the sort of damaged sensibility that drove him to invent second acts in American lives that turn out as abysmally as the first ones. But this would be to overlook the crucial thing about Yates, which isn’t the trapped plights of his characters but his articulation of that entrapment: the seamless arrangement of sentences, the knack for dialogue, and the acutely observant style. It is a style on which nothing is lost, be it the look of a room (“their solid wall of books would take the curse off the picture window”) or of a woman’s expression (“her face would be drawn with fatigue so that the little vertical line between her eyes would show, even when she smiled”). Within his bleak compass, where everything fresh becomes stale and where the same response of chagrin and futility occurs whether the character in question is a poet or a copywriter, Yates has few peers. Still and all, by the time he died, alone and destitute, having lived the last years of his life among graduate students at the University of Alabama, he was well on his way to becoming what one London Times critic described in 2001 as “America’s finest forgotten author.”

The change in fortune that led, less than a decade after his death, beginning with the reprint in 2000 of Revolutionary Road, to the passionate embrace of an overlooked figure is a victory of sorts, to be sure. All the same, it is impossible to read Yates without recognizing that the atmosphere of failure and bitterness that colors the fates of his characters, many of whom are transparently autobiographical, implicates the author more than is usual. Yates is a first-person writer in third-person garb; he is both skinless and omniscient. His characters, in turn, are predestined to fall down or crack up or simply fade into a death-in-life because their creator couldn’t imagine a happier scenario for them. To have done so would have required Yates to have believed in ameliorative possibilities, when the only convictions he appears to have held—aside from a belief in herringbone-tweed jackets, Brooks Brothers shoes, and an old-school social manner (when he wasn’t picking drunken fights or being derailed by manic attacks)—were negative or confounded ones. He was, you might say, permanently bewildered as to why he was where he was, in a tiny roach-ridden apartment as often as not, as though his powers of agency had been bypassed in favor of some dooming agenda: “Getting out of here is an appealing idea,” he told an interviewer from the Los Angeles Times when he was living on the West Coast in 1989. But then, as long as I’ve lived, getting out of wherever I am has seemed an appealing idea.”

To be sure, Yates came from a difficult background, although he tended to downplay it for professionals and friends. One could point to his mercurial, hopelessly impractical, and artistically aspiring mother, who left his father when Yates was three, as the source of his lifelong problems, especially his intense fear of abandonment. “Dick had a terrible thing with loneliness,” Sheila, his first wife and mother of two of his three daughters, notes in Blake Bailey’s excellent biography of Yates, A Tragic Honesty (2003). “If he formed an attachment, he’d be half-destroyed if it ended. He could never bear the thought of losing close people.” Yates based the character of Pookie, the hapless, self-centered, pretentious, and wholly embarrassing mother in The Easter Parade (1976), on “Dookie,” which was his and his sister’s pet name for their mother, and the hostile portrait surely reflects some of his own sentiments: “Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called ‘flair.’ She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick within the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty.” Pookie ends up in a psychiatric hospital, lost in grandiose fantasies and rarely visited by her daughters. Yet Yates felt pained love as well as hatred for his mother and also recognized, in his clear-eyed fashion, aspects of her in himself: “I knew she was foolish and irresponsible, that she talked too much,” a character based on himself in A Good School (1978) observes, “that she made crazy emotional scenes over nothing and could be counted on to collapse in a crisis, but I had come to suspect, dismally, that my own personality might be built along much the same lines.”

Yates seems to have been born fragile, without enough protective covering; he once described himself to a friend as having been “held together with safety pins” while at prep school. His temperament was inherently melancholic—“he rarely joked when sober,” Bailey reports—and, from adolescence on, he suffered from intervals of immobilizing depression. Although he made light of these periods by referring to them as “broods” and assured the fed-up Sheila that they “do not stem from any dark, Hamlet-like neurosis, incurable and tragic, but from plain laziness,” there was certainly a biochemical component to them. For much of his adult life, Yates went to psychiatrists, despite having no faith in them, and was on psychotropic medication, including tranquilizers and mood stabilizers. The extent of his mental instability was severe, and there is, I think, a quality of quiet heroism in the fact that he wrote at all, much less persevered in the face of the reading public’s indifference. He was a conscientious and loving, if needy, father to his daughters, but without his art, his life—strewn with divorces, misfired romances, ruptured friendships, and self-destructive acts, like accidentally setting his apartment on fire—would be a sorrow beyond even his telling.

What, then, of Revolutionary Road? Tennessee Williams was moved to telegraph a blurb to Yates’s editor, Sam Lawrence, after reading it: “If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don’t know what it is.” Can the novel still generate that sort of enthusiasm? As a virgin reader this past fall, I can vouch for its powerfully sober effect, the way the tone is both remorseless and humane, and the sheer readability of the thing. You go on reading because you want to know whether Frank Wheeler, the Connecticut suburbanite with notions of superiority, is as superficial as he seems and whether April, his “is-that-all-there-is?” wife, is as desperate as she tries not to appear. The novel is impeccably constructed, with a sureness of vision as though it had appeared to the writer in its entirety in one expansive glimpse.

This is Yates’s moment, with a vengeance. He is back once again for reappraisal, and this time there is more of him, more forms of him, than ever. Knopf has collected Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness in an Everyman’s Library edition; Vintage will be republishing A Special Providence (1969) and Young Hearts Crying (1984) in March and has put out a new edition of Revolutionary Road with one of those golden “Major Motion Picture” stickers plastered on the front. Yates, who went out to Hollywood to write a screen treatment of Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness that never got made and who suffered through inconclusive talk of Revolutionary Road becoming a movie (he wanted Jack Lemmon to play Frank), would probably have gotten grim pleasure out of the idea that a book that owed inspiration to Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was translatable to the silver screen.

And it is, to a degree. With Sam Mendes as director and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as the vehemently ordinary couple who aspire to creatively fulfilled, extraordinary destinies, the movie deviates very little from the book’s narrative and pays homage to Yates’s dialogue. Filmed in a yellowy light that makes everything look poignantly uncontemporary, from the living-room furniture to the way April cold-creams her stage makeup off her face, the film conjures a time that has been elsewhere simplified by the gloss of postmodern irony and retrieves that era’s flesh-and-blood pathos. The ’50s, it turns out, is in many ways just like us, with anxiety seeping out from under the cosmeticized selves and lifestyles. You sense the anguish behind DiCaprio’s and Winslet’s beautiful features and the fear that underlies their selective visions of the world. What the movie lacks, I daresay, is the stare-you-in-the-face broken truthfulness of the book, the nuanced interior life of its characters, the way “the virus of calamity, dormant and threatening all these weeks,” comes to infect every aspect of the Wheelers’ existence. But that’s what literature—and the transformed demons of Richard Yates—contrive to give us.

Daphne Merkin is the author of Enchantment (Harcourt, 1986), a novel, and Dreaming of Hitler (Crown, 1997), a collection of essays.

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