Richard Yates (1926-1992), the author of Revolutionary Road and other novels, was a damaged man who produced beautiful, bleak books while he indulged his addictions and was in and out of mental hospitals due to frequent mental breakdowns (Yates was bipolar). As described by Blake Bailey in the absorbing literary biography A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, he may have had one of the worst lives of any of the great writers.
Despite influential friendships, supportive publishers, and winning grants and awards, he lived in horrible, squalid apartments all his life. Every writer will feel a surge of recognition at his artistic dilemmas and his struggle to balance art and making a living. He gave up on the relationship front pretty early, though he fathered three daughters and was a better father than he was a husband.
As the son of a divorced, spendthrift, alcoholic mother who thought she was a great sculptor but never achieved much recognition and remained emotionally dependent on her increasingly distant son, Yates was haunted by his past and was particularly ambivalent about writing autobiographical fiction. Later in life he came to terms with it. From the biography: “There were other times, fortunately, when he knew better. ‘All I write about is family,’ Elizabeth Cox told him. ‘That’s all there is to write about,’ Yates replied.”
Yates had to endure humiliating experiences as he aged and his books went out of print in the 1970s and ’80s:
“That winter he was invited to give a reading at the University of Massachusetts (Boston), but not a single person showed up. He sat in the silent lecture hall while his two sponsors gazed at their watches; finally Yates suggested they adjourn to a bar. He didn’t seem particularly surprised.”
Bailey’s sense of tragic irony is note-perfect throughout. I laughed often and made copious notes. My sympathy stayed with Yates through the entire long book, which is a marvel, given his lifelong homophobia and sexism. But Bailey is that good at capturing the essential sweetness of the man while never ignoring his flaws.
Since I haven’t read any Yates at all, I have a treat in front of me.