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.

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