Blake Bailey's lucid and surprisingly uplifting biography draws attention to a much-admired but much-neglected novelist. Richard Yates's life was a relentless series of hopes, disappointments, and recoveries. Each time his life took another turn for the worse, he devoted himself more manically to his work.
That work - seven novels including "Revolutionary Road," "Disturbing the Peace," and "The Easter Parade," as well as the short story collections "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" and "Liars in Love" - has earned a lasting place in post-war American literature. In it Yates probed the flawed dreams of the middle-class. Each book was acclaimed for its craftsmanship and denounced for its bleakness. Sales were usually modest.
Yates's first novel, "Revolutionary Road," appeared in 1961. Borrowing his blueprint from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Yates constructed the story of a Connecticut couple who are perilously dissatisfied with a 1950s variation of the American dream. In that book, Bailey writes, "deceptively simple language is like the glassy surface of a deep and murky loch. The first thing one may see is a rippled image of oneself, and then the churning shadows beneath."
Yates was acquainted with murky depths. He was raised in New York City by an improvident and alcoholic sculptor who divorced his salesman father (once an aspiring tenor singer) in her dubious quest for artistic freedom. Drafted into the army as he graduated from high school in 1944, Yates never attended college.
Always clumsy, Yates tried to prove his worth on a German battlefield by volunteering to be a runner even though he had pneumonia. Thus he permanently damaged his lungs and developed TB. After the war, with disability benefits, he quit a publicity job and went to France to learn to write. In this he emulated his hero, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was likewise intrigued by the tarnished romance of American ambition.
Yates did teach himself to write. He also compounded his lung disease by smoking four packs a day and exacerbated his manic depression with alcohol. His nervous breakdowns became frequent and legendary. Physical and mental illness went hand-in-hand with stubborn irascibility that got worse as he aged, making it impossible for him to sustain a marriage or any of his liaisons with younger women, though he craved female companionship. Later, two of his three daughters kept their distance too, letting their contact lapse to Sunday morning phone calls when they knew Yates would be sober.
He did most of his writing in the mornings as well. He lived in penury and squalor, but supported and educated his daughters by doing corporate publicity, teaching in universities, or writing screenplays and speeches. He died in 1992, leaving in his rental apartment freezer an unfinished novel about his stint as a speechwriter for Attorney General Robert Kennedy. The manuscript was the only object of value he possessed.
Was Yates's art worth such suffering? Reading the biography of a troubled artist may allow saner people to feel superior, to adopt a position of relief that we have not been so burdened with talent. Bailey doesn't let us off with such an easy conclusion. With his intelligent respect for Yates's work, he grants us another way to look at the man: what would Yates have been without his writing, the one thing of which he was proud, the thing he could do extraordinarily well?
Writing did not make Yates mentally ill - it saved him from total collapse. Bailey's excellent biography may do the same for its subject's reputation.
(This review first appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.)