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An Honest Tragedy

By Jeff Stimpson

"If someone were an ambitious shit, he wouldn't care about Dick (Yates), because his books didn't sell and people thought him odd, a loser. But if you cared about writing, you cared about Dick." -- A Tragic Honesty.

There's a new biography about novelist Richard Yates. It's a good book. I wish I'd written it.

A poet-professor named Richard Weber turned me onto Yates some 20 years ago. "Another writer you should read is Richard Yates," said Weber, shambling in sandals and beaded vest through the creative writing workshop that highlighted my one calendar year of college.

Weber told me this about a week before I dropped out, but a few months later, on my day off from Arthur Treacher's as I wondered the public library of Ithaca, N.Y., I dropped by the Y section of Fiction. I read A Good School first, and even while digesting the first paragraphs of that book, my mind began to fumble for adjectives adequate to Yates: deft, gentle, funny, brutal. I still can't describe Yates's style -- I can't copy it, either, but that's another funny and brutal story -- but for me Yates was the first writer who ever, to quote one of his characters, "made the difficult look easy."

(I was going to insert more samples of Yates's writing here, but I've learned that when writing an essay, you don't use the words of writers who are much, much better than you.)

He published just seven novels: Revolutionary Road (his first, swiftly lauded as a classic of post-WWII suburban angst), The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace, A Special Providence, A Good School, Cold Spring Harbor, and Young Hearts Crying, plus the short-story collections Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love. The manuscript of his last novel, Uncertain Times, they found in his freezer after he died in a Veterans Administration hospital in 1992. The bio has spurred the publishing world to re-issue some titles, though you'll be lucky to locate more than a couple of these fine books.

Yates was apparently his own worst enemy. He smoked incessantly, in and out of TB wards almost until the hour he hit that VA floor. He drank. He railed against the Ivy League elite. He pissed on a friend's house. He was carted from Bread Loaf Writers Colony in a straightjacket; the nervous breakdowns in Disturbing the Peace are pure autobiography (as was much of his fiction); and Blake Bailey, his lucky biographer, recounts how more than one girlfriend endured tirades from the man who once screamed he was the "greatest fucking writer in America." Weber knew him at the Yaddo writers' conference, where Yates was in a funk because some poet just published in The New Yorker read the manuscript of Easter Parade and thought it stunk.

In the last two decades, Yates has become a minor focal point in my life. His daughter was the inspiration for Elaine on "Seinfeld," which Jill and I love. I once happened to meet Andre Dubus, one of Yates's students and admirers - and a great writer in his own right - and the first thing I asked Dubus was what he thought of Yates. ("He's a HE-ro!" Dubus said).

And I've steered more than a few people, including Jill, onto Yates. "Nothing like Updike's self-indulgence," said one professor. "I wasted a whole afternoon reading Yates," said my friend Jon, who meant it as a compliment to Yates's smooth style. Jill likes him, too, and wonders as I do why publishing mistreated Yates.

"'member the guy in Catch Me If You Can?" she asked. "The imposter? How he walks right into that class and slams his books down and says, 'I am the teacher here!' Well," said Jill, "Yates didn't know how to slam his books down."

In 1983, something about an under-appreciated great writer appealed to me, and I called Yates. Couldn't believe I simply found him in the Boston phone book.

"I'm trying to reach Richard Yates."

"This is Richard Yates."

"I'm trying to reach Richard Yates the writer."

"This is Richard Yates the writer."

Jesus, it really was. First thing he did was ask me about my writing. Seven years I'd been at it, then. "Oh," he said, "you're just a beginner."

He sounded gentle and quiet. He could be that way on first impressions. "Nicest thing about me is my stories," he once admitted to a therapist. My call also came about the time that Yates gave at the University of Massachusetts, and not one person showed up. Indeed, Yates often shambled with no beaded vests to endear him to passersby. Once in the mid-1970s, groggy on anti-depressants and probably whiskey, he actually wandered around Jill's neighborhood in Manhattan until a doorman drove him off and called him a bum.

I wish I'd been the one person in that reading. I wish I'd met him. "I wonder," I proposed to Jill the other night, "what my mother would have said if I'd told her in 1976 that her 14-year-old son wanted to go to the Upper East Side of Manhattan and hang out with his future wife and Richard Yates."

"A depressed teenage New York girl and a heavily medicated, alcoholic novelist?" Jill pointed out. I guess I know what my mother would have said.

By the time I didn't have to ask anyone's permission to hang around with New York women or the heavily medicated, I'd lost my edge to write fiction (a drifting Yates would found unconscionable). Nineteen-ninety-two came and went. Still, I carted my complete works of Yates apartment to apartment. Now I'll do the same with his biography, which I'm using to guide me to not only the work of Yates but to the fiction that wowed him, like Gatsby and Madame Bovary. I'm hoping that something in there will teach me how to slam my own books down, because I'm no beginner anymore.

Jeff Stimpson, 41, lives in New York with his wife and two small sons. He has been a working journalist for some 17 years, and maintains a site of essays at www.jeffslife.net.

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