Richard Yates’ Gruesome Life Laudably Indexed for Posterity

A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates , by Blake Bailey. Picador, 675 pages, $35.

The real horror in reading any biography, whether it be a doorstop paean to a President or the brief life of a saint, is the subject’s dogged persistence in being, well, himself. This is partly a consequence of the genre’s founding conceit-that we live as in a book, from page to page, scattering crumbs for that great biographer in the sky as we progress from child’s play to index entry-and mostly due to the reality that character is destiny. In life, we depend on the possibility of choosing a bright new future for ourselves, freed from the failures of the past and the eventuality of death; put this same wish between the covers of a book and watch it come to nothing-or rather, end in a macabre index line like this one: “Yates, Richard, apartments, gloom and grime of, 4, 195-96, 246-47, 314, 319, 439, 470-71, 544-45, 561-62, 564, 581-82.” Or perhaps more to the point: “health problems, hypoxia and need for oxygen tanks, 1, 566, 574, 582-83.”

I guess it’s clear from the grim reflections above that I’ve just finished reading about the singularly sad life of the novelist Richard Yates in A Tragic Honesty , an unabashed example of literary hagiography and an impressive piece of reclamation work by Blake Bailey. There’s much to celebrate in revisiting Yates’ career, beginning with his astonishing first novel Revolutionary Road , nominated for the National Book Award in 1961 (and beaten out by another astonishing first novel, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer ). What followed thereafter-the short-story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love , six novels including The Easter Parade -was the product of a reduced and, in fact, often tranquilized ambition, beginning with Yates’ “first full-blown breakdown” (and hospitalization at Bellevue) in the months leading up to Revolutionary Road ‘s publication. “By 1974,” Mr. Bailey writes, at least two major psychotic episodes later, “Yates was taking as many as three different psychotropics a day, in addition to lithium.” And did he drink? “‘This is what keeps your old daddy in business!’ he cheerfully told a friend, dumping a handful of pills in his mouth and washing them down with a slug of bourbon.” The real cause for celebration is not so much that Yates-who had intimate knowledge of every calamity there is, short of a plane crash-managed to write as well as he did for as long as he did, but rather that he managed to write, period.

The task of being a novelist in America tends to settle upon the shoulders of misfits and dreamers-the wallflower who shows up at the party anyway, just to torture herself-and Yates, like so many of the characters that populate his fiction, was the essence of this unbowed-yet-easily-damaged personality type. A common charge leveled against him is that his “realism” is so dogmatic that it never rises to the level of fiction; after reading A Tragic Honesty , I’d have to say that the jury is still deliberating. Richard Ford is right to stress, in his introduction to the current paperback edition of Revolutionary Road , that the novel’s furious compassion (among other graces) helps it to transcend the confines of the “realist” novel, even if the basic facts stick close to Yates’ life (suburban tract house, corporate job, rocky marriage, etc.). Yet the later, post-prescription Yates fixated so squarely on his biography for the substance of his fiction that Mr. Bailey, again and again, depends on the short stories and novels for their evocation of crucial moments in the author’s development. (One is tempted to call Yates’ method “The Life as Life-Saver.”)

There’s his mother’s pathetic attempt to further her career as a sculptor by making a bronze bust of F.D.R., reduced in practice to a smaller-than-life-size head, cast in lead (the story “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired”); there’s Yates’ youthful exploits on the eve of the Second World War at the Avon Old Farms school in Connecticut ( A Good School ); there’s his inept military service in Europe ( A Special Providence ); his first psychotic episode ( Disturbing the Peace ); and his teaching experience at the Iowa Writers Workshop (as the poet “Jack Flanders” in The Easter Parade ). Mr. Bailey argues persuasively that there’s art in Yates’ reliance on lived experience-and there is, on every page-but he glosses the unavoidable fact that Yates’ vision as a novelist, instead of widening and complicating with the years, grew progressively more narrow, until he could relate to nothing but his own predicament. Yates remained, as ever, a genius at depicting (and even inventing) moments of radical disappointment, such as Emily Grimes’ loss of virginity to a soldier named “either Warren Maddock or Warren Maddox” in The Easter Parade and his meager invitation afterwards: “Want to go for a malted or something?”

It’s an odd sensation to read a biography as laudable and as necessary as Mr. Bailey’s-it’s a sweetheart of a book, as Yates might have growled in a dark corner of the Lion’s Head-and to root for its subject through the middling book sales, the mixed reviews, the blown marriages (two in all) and the crippling psychotic breaks, while at the same time finding sympathy for the friends and lovers who abandoned him and the critics who shone a light on the limits of his work. An exception is the hatchet job Anatole Broyard published in The New York Times in 1984, ostensibly a review of Young Hearts Crying ; there’s cruelty in Broyard’s precision and the hint of a personal gripe (the two men had taught together at the New School in the late 1950’s and spent many a night tomcatting in the Village). The problem with the work of Richard Yates, alluded to by Mr. Bailey but never really faced head-on, is best summed up by the critic Robert Towers: ” … it is as if Yates were under some enchantment that compelled him to keep circling the same half-acre of pain.” That half-acre, in the pages of Revolutionary Road , was large enough to encompass a universe-a tragic dream of life in America with all the fixings. What A Tragic Honesty teaches us, however-despite the best efforts of Mr. Bailey to prove otherwise-is that Yates’ plot of land kept shrinking and shrinking until the realism that he thought would transform his life became the warden of his prison.

Benjamin Anastas’ most recent novel is The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance (Picador) .