Methuen, £25/ £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

A Tragic Honesty, by Blake Bailey

A writer on the rack of loneliness

Richard Yates (1926-1992) was the loneliest American writer who ever lived. If there was any doubt that sadness was Yates's hair shirt, Blake Bailey's new biography closes the door on that issue. Bailey sets out to understand the roots of this loneliness, and on that account - and many others - triumphantly succeeds. Drawing on letters, interviews, Yates's fiction and frank conversations with one of his psychologists, Bailey depicts a man racked by instability and ambition, generous with writers but stingy with himself.

Richard Yates (1926-1992) was the loneliest American writer who ever lived. If there was any doubt that sadness was Yates's hair shirt, Blake Bailey's new biography closes the door on that issue. Bailey sets out to understand the roots of this loneliness, and on that account - and many others - triumphantly succeeds. Drawing on letters, interviews, Yates's fiction and frank conversations with one of his psychologists, Bailey depicts a man racked by instability and ambition, generous with writers but stingy with himself.

Bailey begins in New York, where Yates was born to a General Electric sales manager and an aspiring sculptor perennially verging on her big break. His father tired of this routine and left, so Yates was raised by Ruth, otherwise known as Dookie. With borrowed money, Dookie moved her children into one posh New York neighbourhood after another, where Yates was the only child whose frayed shirt collars reflected not genteel neglect but poverty.

It's easy to overplay the psychological importance of any artist's childhood, but Bailey does build a compelling case for how autobiographical Yates's fiction was. As the book follows him to prep school, into the military and back to New York, nearly every step of the way can be traced in Yates's later fiction.

It would take another decade for Yates to produce his classic novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), as the two banes of his adulthood - alcoholism and bipolar disease - threw his life into chaos. During the next 30 years, these afflictions torched two marriages and many friendships. Yates was a proud man, but his stubborn self-neglect forced friends into becoming a 24-hour rescue unit that bailed him out of bar fights and checked him into mental institutions.

What's amazing is that, as Yates's drinking and psychotic outbreaks escalated, he worked harder than ever. Words were something he could control. And he never entirely dropped out: Yates was a prolific and inspiring teacher, moving between universities from New York to Kansas.

Bailey turns Yates's long, slow grind into a fabulous and often hysterical read, though Yates's colourful character helps things along. This is, after all, a man who threatened to kill an editor who rejected him. A four-pack-a-day smoker, Yates was a walking fire hazard. He burned down one apartment, set his beard on fire in a restaurant and spread blizzards of ash wherever he went.

Bailey never plays such anecdotes at Yates's expense. Instead, Yates rises up as something he never allowed in his fiction: a hero. As literary trends boomeranged from postmodernism to minimalism to maximalism, Yates burrowed into his past and emerged again and again with powerful, unflinchingly stark fiction. As with the best literary biographies, A Tragic Honesty will not just help readers understand this important body of work but will also make them want to read it.

Buy any book reviewed on this site at www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk
- postage and packing are free in the UK
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition