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A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates Hardcover – July 1, 2003


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 656 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (July 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312287216
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312287214
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.8 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (31 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,456,262 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

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.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

More About the Author

Blake Bailey is the author of acclaimed biographies of John Cheever, Richard Yates, and Charles Jackson, and he is currently at work on the authorized biography of Philip Roth. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and Francis Parkman Prize, and a finalist for the Pulitzer and James Tait Black Memorial Prizes. His most recent book is a memoir, "The Splendid Things We Planned," published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2014. He lives in Virginia, where he is the Mina Hohenberg Darden Professor of Creative Writing at Old Dominion University.

Customer Reviews

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A fascinating read and very worthwhile!
Robert Vaughan
Like Claire Tomalin's excellent recent biography of Samuel Pepys, "A Tragic Honesty" is both aided and constrained by the writings of the subject himself.
Kenneth E. Steinfield
What makes Blake Bailey's account of Richard Yates's life inspiring is the dedication and integrity Yates had as an artist.
Michael Leone

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

65 of 66 people found the following review helpful By Kenneth E. Steinfield on July 22, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Richard Yates is not for everybody. To read Yates's novels and short stories is to be confronted with irrefutable evidence of the inescapable bleakness, futility, and self-delusion inherent in modern human existence. Most people prefer stories about anthropomorphic bunnies who get into danger -- light danger -- overcome it, and get home in time for supper. This is not surprising, given the inescapable bleakness, futility, and self-delusion inherent in modern human existence. But for masochists, lovers of exquisitely crafted and unforgettable prose, and those capable of receiving and accepting harsh truths (without committing suicide), reading the works of Richard Yates is a rewarding (if unarguably depressing) experience.
The same is true of Blake Bailey's superb "A Tragic Honesty," the first biography of Yates. The book does full justice to its enigmatic subject, who died in relative obscurity and absolute penury in 1992. In the decade since, Richard Yates has come to exemplify the brilliant and tormented writer -- the "writer's writer," the consummate crafstman -- who achieves posthumously some of the recognition and adulation largely (and unfairly) denied him in life, rendering him, of course, all the more tragic. Getting rich and famous only after you're dead and can't enjoy it is quintessentially Yatesian; while Yates would have appreciated the irony, he probably would rather have had the cash. If there is cash now to be had, I'm glad it's going to Bailey and (I hope) Yates's heirs, his three beloved daughters.
Like Claire Tomalin's excellent recent biography of Samuel Pepys, "A Tragic Honesty" is both aided and constrained by the writings of the subject himself.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By John McNally on June 26, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Blake Bailey masterfully captures the sad life of Richard Yates. Yates' work was far more autobiographical than I had ever realized, and Yates himself -- his actions, the things he says -- often resembles a character from one of his own books. The haunting effect of this biography is that it reads, at times, like a lost Yates novel. This is the good new for Yates fans. The bad news is that Yates' life was even sadder than I had anticipated (and I had anticipated a very sad life). I have read much of the source material used in this book beforehand, and it is to Blake Bailey's credit that he synthesized it into something much more powerful and affecting than straight reportage: He has given us flesh and blood, Mr. Yates himself, a man as tragic as any figure in literature. Kudos to Mr. Bailey. This book should appeal to Yates' fans, as well as anyone who wants to read a gripping tale of an artist's troubled life.
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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on August 6, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Blake Bailey's lucid and surprisingly uplifting biography draws attention to a much-admired but much-neglected novelist. Richard Yates's life was a relentless series of hopes, disappointments, and recoveries. Each time his life took another turn for the worse, he devoted himself more manically to his work.
That work - seven novels including "Revolutionary Road," "Disturbing the Peace," and "The Easter Parade," as well as the short story collections "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness" and "Liars in Love" - has earned a lasting place in post-war American literature. In it Yates probed the flawed dreams of the middle-class. Each book was acclaimed for its craftsmanship and denounced for its bleakness. Sales were usually modest.
Yates's first novel, "Revolutionary Road," appeared in 1961. Borrowing his blueprint from Flaubert's "Madame Bovary," Yates constructed the story of a Connecticut couple who are perilously dissatisfied with a 1950s variation of the American dream. In that book, Bailey writes, "deceptively simple language is like the glassy surface of a deep and murky loch. The first thing one may see is a rippled image of oneself, and then the churning shadows beneath."
Yates was acquainted with murky depths. He was raised in New York City by an improvident and alcoholic sculptor who divorced his salesman father (once an aspiring tenor singer) in her dubious quest for artistic freedom. Drafted into the army as he graduated from high school in 1944, Yates never attended college.
Always clumsy, Yates tried to prove his worth on a German battlefield by volunteering to be a runner even though he had pneumonia. Thus he permanently damaged his lungs and developed TB.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Tom on August 29, 2003
Format: Hardcover
As a recent inductee to that lucky fraternity of readers whose pleasure it has been to read the work of Richard Yates, I was excited to discover that a large and impressive biography had been written about the man. And I am even more pleased to report that Bailey does his subject no disservice; with the same unflinching honesty and scalpel-sharp prose Yates demanded from himself and his students, Bailey catalogues the many trials and tribulations of Yates' life. Depressing as his life was, and as reprehensible and inscrutable as his behavior sometimes was, Yates still comes across as heroic in his dedication to his craft---and a likable, eccentric and sometimes demented curmudgeon to boot. Not only is Yates' occupation as a writer explored at length, but other important facets of his character are fairly represented, such as his tender dedication to his daughters and the terminal bachelordom of his later years. That such an excellent biography should be written about Yates ten years after his death is testament to this writer's legacy, and hopefully portends the long overdue resurgence of his stock among those of us to whom great literatue matters.
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