F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but he failed to note that the second act often comes after death, especially for American authors. Fitzgerald himself was a prime example; fallen out of fashion in his final years, pressed for cash and hacking in Hollywood, a decade after he died, he was “revived” as a literary icon. Now The Great Gatsby is required reading in high schools and colleges throughout the land and has sold millions of copies – cold comfort for the author. The single-sentence requiem spoken at Jay Gatsby’s funeral was repeated at his author’s burial by Dorothy Parker: “The poor son of a bitch.”
Richard Yates, who used to recite whole passages of Gatsby over drinks at The Crossroads on Commonwealth Avenue, might have had the same bleak epitaph spoken at his own death in a VA Hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1992. Now, like his literary hero, Yates is having his own “second act,” capped by a movie of his novel Revolutionary Road starring Leonardo DeCaprio.
A representative of the company producing the DVD of the movie called last summer to ask if I would be interviewed for a special feature to be added about the author, since he wasn’t “known.” I said I’d be glad to do that, but Yates, I said, “is already known to writers.”
“Yes,” she said, “But not to people.”
Yates’ plain-spoken, lucid prose inspired writers like Raymond Carver, Frank Conroy and Richard Price, but he never scored any big hits in his lifetime. Only a decade ago, his nine books were out of print; an article in The Hudson Review in 1999 lamented that Yates had been neglected in his life and forgotten after his death.
Now that unkind fate is finally being rectified. A new paperback of his novel is out to coincide with the movie, soon to be followed by a one-volume “Everyman” edition of his work, including the novels Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, and the short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. More movie projects are underway.
Money was a constant struggle for Yates, whose books never sold beyond the dreaded “midlist” category of publishing (sales in the low five figures, and sometimes less.) Intermittent teaching jobs in Kansas, Iowa, and finally Alabama, plus advances against future royalties from Boston publisher Sam Lawrence and sometimes an emergency loan from his friend Kurt Vonnegut – two of those whose faith in Yates never flagged – helped keep him precariously afloat.
Yates never lusted for riches, and I can’t imagine him wearing anything other than his daily uniform of Brooks Brothers navy blue blazer, button-down blue shirt with rep tie, and grey flannel trousers. Whether I saw him in New York in the `fifties or Boston in the `eighties, he was always dressed the same.
The only time I saw Dick Yates without his jacket was a freezing winter night when I took a bag of groceries to his barren, one-room apartment on Commonwealth Avenue. The only furniture was a desk (with an old typewriter on it), a chair, and a bed. The room was lit by the eerie blue flames of a gas stove and heated by an oven whose door was open. With his sallow face and gray beard, his arms folded over his chest, his thin, gangly body hunched against the cold, he seemed like a doomed character from Dostoevsky.
He was cursed by his alcoholism, which led to such disasters as passing out with a lit cigarette that set fire to his New York apartment and burned Yates in the process. He was arrested for drunkenness in Harvard Square, incarcerated in Bellevue, developed a hacking cough and emphysema from chain-smoking, suffered seizures brought on by alcoholic-aggravated epilepsy, and was in and out of VA Hospitals most of his life. Yet through it all, he kept writing, stoking his morning coffee with five or six sugars that kept him going till he took a break for beer and a burger at The Crossroads, followed by a nap and return to his booth for the first drinks of the evening.
After a few bourbons, Yates could charm and sparkle. His blue eyes really did twinkle, as he spoke of “girls” (faithful to his world of the 1950s, attractive females were never “women”) and favorite authors. He quoted lines from Flaubert, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, as well as contemporaries he admired, especially William Styron, whose novel Lie Down in Darkness he adapted as a screenplay (though never produced as a film, his loyal fan DeWitt Henry had it published in book form by Ploughshares.)
Comfortably nested in a booth at The Crossroads, Yates was always looked out for by owner Mike Brodigan and a bevy of attending waitresses. His face would crinkle with mischievous winks as he took delight in skewering “phonies” and knocking the novels he thought were unduly praised; high on this list was one by Nobel-winner Saul Bellow that Yates called “Mr. Sammler’s f. . . .ing Planet.”
After lamenting that he should have gone to college when he got out of the army in World War II, and that Revolutionary Road should have won The National Book Award when it was nominated (he believed it lost out because the wife of one of the judges didn’t approve of it), Yates would always come back to what seemed his biggest disappointment. Between belts of bourbon and racking coughs, he told how he had sent short stories to The New Yorker year after year but never had one accepted.
In his splendid biography, A Tragic Honesty, Blake Bailey wrote that after Yates was cremated, his ashes were temporarily stored in the basement of his daughter Sharon’s house. When she heard The New Yorker had at long last decided to publish one of his stories (it evidently took on new luster after its author’s demise), she went down to the basement, gave a little shake to the box of ashes and said “Way to go, Dad!”
In a roundup of holiday movie tips, The New York Observer called Revolutionary Road “this excellent and beloved 1961 novel by Richard Yates” that was “finally making its way to the silver screen.” This is the first time I have ever seen that stark, sad novel with its powerfully bleak ending described as “beloved,” which seems rather like referring to “Franz Kafka’s beloved The Trial.” I agree wholeheartedly, however, with the critic’s closing sentiment: “If only Yates were here to see this.”
(Originally appeared in The Boston Globe, December 28, 2008.)