William Boyd

Tough is the night

Text settings

A Tragic Honesty

Blake Bailey

Methuen, pp. 671, £

‘Mostly we authors repeat ourselves,’ Scott Fitzgerald observed late in his life. ‘We learn our trade, well or less well, and we tell our two or three stories … as long as people will listen.’ There’s a lot of truth in this remark (though some authors have more than two or three stories to tell), but in the case of the American writer Richard Yates, subject of this fascinating biography, there was only one story that obsessed him and Yates, essentially, told it again and again in both his long and short fiction whether people were listening or not.

Richard Yates was born in Yonkers, NY, in 1926 into a thoroughly dysfunctional family and his own tortured psyche and that of his mother and relatives provided him with the raw material of his fiction for his working life. Yates was mentally unstable and an alcoholic (as was his only sister). Their mother was a rackety, self-appointed ‘Bohemian’ sculptress who divorced her dull, middle-management husband as soon as was feasible and took her children off on a series of flits through pre-second world war New England and Green- wich Village, somehow managing to keep one step ahead of the bailiffs and the creditors but royally messing up her children in the process (in her cups, she was in the habit of slipping into bed with her pubescent son).

A scholarship pupil at private school, Yates was the talented poor boy who wanted to be a writer and he achieved relatively early success with his short stories. After graduating he served briefly with the US Army at the tail end of the war, married early and spent some time learning his trade, as Scott Fitzgerald put it, in France and London. The trouble with Yates was that he wanted to be a writer — and a ‘writer’. The ghost of Scott Fitzgerald haunts his life both as an artistic exemplar and as a ruinous role-model. Yates’s writing career was lived out against a background of 80 cigarettes a day, prodigious boozing and manic depression. The handfuls of pharmaceuticals he took to keep himself relatively sane were never designed to be washed down by Jack Daniels and it has to be said that, very early on, Yates placed his finger squarely on the self-destruct button and held it there. Marriages and relationships collapsed with regularity and the literary career that he embarked on so promisingly with his first novel Revolutionary Road (1960) soon evolved itself into a long, slow slide of falling sales, missed deadlines, alienated publishers and the law of diminishing returns.

Yet throughout his life Yates was sustained by grants, prizes, spells in Holly- wood writing scripts, temporary creative-writing teaching posts (with a brief, unlikely period as a speech writer for Bobby Kennedy) and the affection and support of steadfast friends and colleagues. As a young man he was tall and moodily good-looking. Yet for all his charisma he was, I suppose, that sad literary figure the ‘one book wonder’. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, turned out to be his chef d’oeuvre. It was written to be the Great Gatsby of the 1960s and it still has its fervent adherents. Reading Yates’s fiction today one has to say that, looking at the work as a whole (six novels and two collections of short stories), there don’t really seem to be grounds for resurrecting him as a forgotten master. His style is classically realistic and elegantly turned but the one-note samba of his inspiration finally enervates. John Updike — who one might argue overtook and outshone Yates as the pre-eminent chronicler of middle-class American angst and adultery — is in a different league. Yates is like many figures in 20th-century American literature: an early flowering of an intriguing talent rendered nugatory by crowding, tormenting demons — drink, drugs, self-doubt, self-loathing, burn-out and so on. Fitzgerald is the obvious precursor but Hemingway was equally undone, as were writers like Berryman, Capote, Kerouac, Cheever and many more.

Yates in his middle age wound up in Boston, living in a bleak, roach-infested apartment with just enough money to feed himself in an Irish pub up the block. He looked like a derelict with a crusted beard, greasy clothes, muttering to himself as he trudged between his apartment and the bar. What sustained Yates — what kept him alive, I suppose — was his romantic vision of himself as an artist. He wrote all the time, even if what he wrote was inferior stuff, and pursued his vocation with a dedication that is in the end amazingly impressive, even if it was self-delusory. A friend described him as ‘fun to be around but a pain in the ass’.

Unfortunately, as his life spiralled downwards the ‘pain in the ass’ aspects seemed to dominate. Yates was both bitter and aggressive, his moods swung violently because of his bipolar disorder and the vast amounts of alcohol he consumed. He fought with friends and his family; through his drink-driven dementia he made a regular public spectacle of himself and was in and out of mental institutions. But it was, so his doctors claimed and pleaded with him, his refusal to give up alcohol that was destroying his life. Eventually, however, it was his manic smoking that killed him. In the early 1990s Yates wound up teaching creative writing at a university in Alabama. Virtually immobile owing to his chronic emphysema, he became a familiar figure driving around campus in a clapped-out Mazda alternately puffing on a cigarette and clamping an oxygen mask to his face. He quit smoking a few months before he died and was astonished at how easy it was to give up. By then it was too late: he was rushed into hospital for a routine operation on an inguin- al hernia (caused by his fits of coughing) and died alone in the night, asphyxiated by his own vomit. It was 1992: he was 66 years old.

‘To write so well and be forgotten is a terrifying legacy,’ a critic commented post- humously. Yates was a fine writer, but the very uneven quality of his work will always have him categorised as a minor 20th-century American novelist despite the tremendous debut he made with Revolutionary Road. However, in a curious way, his hellish life itself may be what he will be remembered for. Blake Bailey has written a fully documented, wonderfully clear-eyed, shrewd and sympathetic account of what must be one of the most nightmarish journeys across this vale of tears that any novelist has undertaken. Yates’s battered, wheezing, ascetic indefatigability is almost heroic but, as with many artists who embark on this kind of slow suicide, one is left with the feeling that at root it is caused by an innate sense of the limits of their talent — by their awareness of just how far they fall short of the genuinely great — that sends them down the slippery slope to their own self-destruction.