Richard Yates worked his way down from the top. His brilliantly pitiless 1961 classic about exploded '50s suburban dreams, Revolutionary Road
, made him a peer of Cheever and Updike (though Natalie Wood broke his heart by scuttling the movie version). William Styron got him a gig writing civil rights speeches for Bobby Kennedy: "He used RFK s a ventriloquist's dummy," says Kurt Vonnegut, who, like Yates's future employer, David (NYPD Blue
) Milch, met him at the celebrated Iowa writing program. Yates's dark gift casts a colossal shadow enriching our culture: he was a profound influence on Richard Ford, Mary Robison, Ann Beattie, and the Minimalist literary movement. He also inspired the "Alton Benes" Seinfeld
episode (his daughter, who apparently shares her dad's mordant wit, helped inspire the character Elaine). Blake Bailey soberly records Yates's rather stylishly bleak spiral from fame into drunkenness and self-imposed obscurity, despite the loyalty of his famous friends. He drunkenly set fire to his beard, succumbed to writer's block and delusions that he'd killed JFK, heedlessly and needlessly alienated even people he admired. But one reason he died poor, with the manuscript of his RFK novel, Uncertain Times
in his freezer, was precisely his gift: an honesty that ranks with the greatest of tragedians. --Tim Appelo
From Publishers Weekly
Richard Yates's most famous novel, Revolutionary Road, set the tone for most of his later fiction: it was, for biographer Bailey, a thinly veiled depiction of Yates (1926-1992) and his immediate surroundings, in many cases with the names barely changed, and was widely praised at the time of its release only to fade into semi-obscurity except for a small group of devotees. Bailey's (The Sixties) massive biography strip-mines Yates's fiction for details of his life; on more than one occasion, the abundance of story elements with real-life parallels is used to suggest that another element, such as the protagonist's affair with a prostitute in the short story "Liars in Love," might also have some basis in fact. These conjectures are offset by extensive interviews with surviving family and acquaintances. At times the sheer amount of information can be overwhelming, in part because the reader is subject to an unrelenting depiction of Yates's life as "a parody of the self-destructive personality." He smoked heavily for decades despite tuberculosis, emphysema and pneumonia, and was often barely able to breathe, and eyewitnesses recall numerous provocative outbursts and emotional breakdowns brought on by the potent combination of manic-depression and alcoholism. And there's the repeated heartache of an author pushing himself time and time again to complete a book, never quite obtaining the success he so desperately wants. Apart from a tendency to throw in disruptive foreshadowing asides, Bailey has done a great job of sorting through the facts of Yates's difficult life, assembling them into a story that mirrors the best of his subject's fiction.
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