Tragedy is a horrendous thing for any human to endure, and yet we all do endure it to one extent or another: adverse childhood experiences, deaths, career failures, and more. The author of this exhaustive literary biography, Blake Bailey, does not employ the word lightly, neither in the title nor how he uses it throughout the book. Bailey’s subject, novelist Richard Yates, born in 1926, has about as tragic life as one can live, yet Yates uses it to formulate his fiction with a high degree of success, perhaps too well, to listen to some critics, many of whom are put off by his lack of “happy endings” or his “dim view” of humanity.
No matter what, Yates comes by his viewpoint honestly. In short, his parents’ divorce, not to mention he is raised by a mother who probably has a better opinion of herself than her real talents manifest themselves in her life. She believes herself to be an “artist,” and because of her opinion, her two children (Richard and sister Ruth) are always at the bottom of her priorities. On the other hand, she is a highly seductive person, among other things, encouraging her young son to sleep in her bed. On nights that she stays out late or all night, the boy child lies in bed, wondering where she is. And when she comes home and falls in next to him and vomits on his pillow, his rage is stoked in a way that remains with him his entire life.
“. . . he fixed on his round eyes and plump lips as physiognomic signs of weakness; more to the point, he thought they made him look feminine, ‘bubbly,’ and he had a lifelong horror of being perceived as homosexual” (39). Hm, I wonder why, with the mother thing he has going on.
Friend and fellow writer Kurt Vonnegut writes about war: “People don’t recover from a war. There’s a fatalism that he [Yates] picked up as a soldier. Enlisted men are surprisingly indifferent to survival. Death doesn’t matter that much” (75).
Friend and former student DeWitt Henry notes: “Dick cultivated an anti-intellectual manner, but there was nothing phony or affected about it. In places like the army and tuberculosis wards he was put in contact with unlettered people, who were just as sensitive as anybody else” (78). Yates did his best to capture natural intelligence in characters, and, in life, in his teaching at the Iowa Workshop, he landed hard on any, any arrogant student who put another’s writing down.
Yates discovers what the term “objective correlative” means: “I had never understood what Eliot meant by the curious phrase ‘objective correlative’ until the scene in Gatsby where the almost comically sinister Meyer Wolfsheim, who has just been introduced, displays his cuff links and explain that they are ‘the finest specimens of human molars.’ Get it? Got it. That’s what Eliot meant” (109). He now gets that Wolfsheim, true to his naturalistic name, traffics in human flesh and uses his understanding to find such tokens for his own characters.
“Flaubert offered a further tutorial on the proper use of the ‘objective correlative’—the telling detail that transmits meaning and emotion without laboring the point” (175)
“The only hope of escape was to write a successful novel—the raw material of which, he already sensed, would be the stuff of his own predicament. But he wanted to transcend the merely personal, to avoid the pitfalls of sentiment and self-pity” (175).
Bailey comments on claims of French critic, Jacques Cabau, that Yates is a master: “Not surprisingly the Frenchman was especially pleased by Yates’s insights into the hollowness of American life: ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness—a courageous theme in America, where loneliness is a sin, where success is obligatory and happiness is the first duty of every citizen’” (271).
Long-term friend and publisher, Sam Lawrence, says at Yates’s funeral (more of a come-as-you-are wake): “‘He drank too much, he smoked too much, he was accident-prone, he led an itinerant life, but as a writer he was all in place. He wrote the best dialogue since John O’Hara, who also lacked the so-called advantages of Harvard and Yale. And like O’Hara he was a master of realism, totally attuned to the nuances of American behavior and speech. You know what I think he would have said to all this? ‘C’mon, Sam, knock it off. Let’s have a drink’” (607).
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