A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work Of Richard Yates

A Tragic Honesty: The Life And Work Of Richard Yates

  • Publish Date: 2003-07-01
  • Binding: Hardcover
  • Author: Blake Bailey
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The first biography of acclaimed American novelist and story writer Richard Yates

Celebrated in his prime, forgotten in his final years, only to be championed anew by our greatest contemporary authors, Richard Yates has always exposed readers to the unsettling hypocrisies of our modern age. Classic novels such as Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade are incomparable chronicles of the quiet and not-so-quiet desperation of the American middle-class. Lonely housewives, addled businessmen, desperate career-girls and fearful boys and soldiers, Yatess America was a panorama of high living, self-doubt and self-deception. And in the tradition of other great realistic writers of his time (Fitzgerald and Hemingway, Cheever and Updike), Yatess fictional world mirrored his own. A manic-depressive alcoholic and unapologetic gentleman, his life was a hornets nest of childhood ghosts, the horrors of war, money woes, and ebullient cocktailed evenings in New York, Hollywood, and the Riviera.

A Tragic Honesty is a masterful evocation of a man who in many ways embodied the struggles of the Great American Writer in the latter half of the twentieth century. Fame and reward followed by heartbreak and obscurity, Richard Yates here stands for what the writer must sacrifice for his craft, the devils bargain of artistry for happiness, praise for sanity.
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

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