Blake Bailey does not spare the reader Richard Yates’s agonies—his lifelong alcoholism, psychotic episodes, failed marriages, and doubts about the value of his writing—any more than Yates spared his characters their indignities. April and Frank Wheeler, the principal figures in his greatest novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), begin their marriage in a 1950’s Connecticut suburb—terrain familiar to readers of John Updike and John Cheever, to whom Yates has often been compared—with a sense of superiority, a dream of greatness that they manifestly will not be able to fulfill. It is an old story, the gap between aspiration and achievement, but Yates redeems the cliché by the vividness of his observations and his unrelenting, unsentimental revelation that this couple is not much different from their mediocre neighbors. This Fitzgerald/Gatsby fable of thwarted dreams would become Yates’s signature tale, told again and again in exquisitely wrought stories and novels that critics praised for their art and condemned for their pessimism. As a result, Yates failed to capture the larger audience that gravitated toward Cheever and Updike. Yates might have been in the running for awards, but he was the kind of writer who always just missed the prize.
Perhaps Bailey will be the one finally to thrust Yates into the literary canon. Bailey has written not merely a splendid biography of Yates—one that makes a compelling case for his subject’s greatness and explains why he has been neglected—but also one of the most moving and engrossing literary biographies of modern times. Bailey seductively interweaves the facts and fiction of Yates’s life into a fine mesh of life and literature, which, the biographer candidly notes, cannot always be disentangled. First drafts of Yates’s work used real names, and even the final drafts made only superficial changes, so that, for example, his mother’s nickname, Dookie, becomes Pookie. Mark Twain once said that history did not repeat itself, it rhymed. That is how Yates used fiction—as a kind of rhyme for his life.
Literary life is often portrayed as a competitive free-for-all; it may be that, but it can also be a heroic world in which writers like R. V. Cassill, Grace Schulman, and George Garrett treat Yates with an uplifting generosity and respect. Cassill, for example, made sure schools hired Yates for writing positions, and Schulman and her husband welcomed the bedraggled writer into their homes even when he was at his most paranoid. He did finally wear this couple out, but they retained and shared with Bailey their fond memories and their exasperation with a literary genius.
There is a good deal of humor in this book. The passage on Yates learning how to drive is priceless. There is also touching humor in the writer’s effort to become a middle-class, dependable guy. His ex-wife told Bailey about an incident in which Yates set out to burn some trash in the back of his home. She heard him swearing but assumed he was just engaging in his usual bumbling attempt to prove he was competent to perform daily chores. Next she saw her husband dancing around a brushfire, which got out of control and resulted in a call to the local volunteer fire department. Afterward, in true Yatesian fashion, the writer signed up for duty and attended the fire department’s weekly Saturday meetings.
Somehow, Bailey manages to make both the comic and the grim episodes of his subject’s life absorbing. This may be because Yates put so much of his life into his fiction. Consequently, the biographer is spared the usual awkward shift from discussing the writer’s work to narrating his life. It is as if Yates’s whole life is material for his writing, and the biographer needs only to track the writer’s import of fact into his fiction. Bailey’s achievement is no accident, however, for it takes an exquisite sensibility to know just how much to tell of each part of Yates’s life. This is a long account, but it is...
(The entire section is 1622 words.)