This Biography of Richard Yates is Honestly Tragic

Originally Published on February 21st, 2017

A Tragic Honesty” started off slow, but about a third of the way in, once Richard Yates sets out on his writing career, the biography soared with detailed accounts of his life that often sad, sometimes funny, and always insightful.

The author Richard Yates wrote nine books, most notably the American classic “Revolutionary Road,” but also the well received novel “Easter Parade” and the exceptional short story collection, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.”

Yates suffered for his work until the end. Even though “Revolutionary Road” is now considered a classic, sales were poor upon its initial release. Yates often subsisted on advances for his next book, and when the money ran out, as it often did, he was forced to take jobs teaching or writing PR copy, screenplays, or speeches. Through his life, which consisted of two marriages and several other romances, Yates consistently consumed vast amounts of alcohol and struggled with frequent mental health issues.

The writer’s life held some amazing twists and turns. At the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1962, the drunken Yates climbed onto the roof and loudly proclaimed he was the Messiah. Aghast conference attendees watched as he was led away in a straightjacket. A year later, the novelist William Styron was asked to recommend a speechwriter for US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Styron recommended Yates for the job, and when Styron called Yates about the position, Yates replied, “I don’t even know if I like the fucking Kennedys.” Yates got the job, and four months in, after the security clearance research revealed his recent hospitalization, Bobby Kennedy personally questioned Yates about his mental issues but agreed to keep him on as a writer.

Yates also spent time in Los Angeles writing screenplays for Roger Corman and John Frankenheimer. Yates bounced around the country throughout his life; Iowa, Kansas, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Alabama, all in attempts to pay his child support and rent while carving out time to write his next novel. He was also physically ill throughout his life. Yates was a chronic smoker – and throughout the biography, his fellow writers and family recalled his constant coughing fits and how his lips were continually dry from the combination of ant-depressants and alcohol.

The biography is filled with anecdotes about his unruly behavior while drinking and pursuing women, but there are also stories about how desperate his friends were to get him the help he sorely needed. At one point, friends tried to admit Yates into a mental facility. After the administrator realized Yates had no money for the stay, the administrator claimed they had no beds open and wouldn’t accept any more patients. Exasperated, the friend pushed a wheelchair with the sedated Yates down the hall and, when nobody was looking, abandoned the writer in a janitor’s closet.

All through the years, the legacy of “Revolutionary Road” continued to grow amongst those in the literary community. While Yates was never as commercially successful as many of his peers, his writing found a cult following amongst the next generation of writers. Yates was well accepted among many famous writers, most notably Styron and Andres Dubus.

The research that went into this biography is amazing. Much of Yates’ life made its way into his writings, and the biographer notes which characters were inspired by family members and friends and often gets their reaction to the realization they had been written about.

As he grew older, Yates doubled down on his writing. He lived in squalor above a Boston pub and focused on cranking out novels and short stories. Blake Bailey’s writing is detailed and easy to read. I definitely recommend “A Tragic Honesty” and would also suggest reading “Revolutionary Road,” “The Easter Parade,” and “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.”

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