I’m sure you’ve heard this before: if it’s on your Facebook profile, it’s official. So let it be known that my religion is Richard Yates.
Richard Yates was a writer who still isn’t as well known as he should be, though I’d think come Christmas this year, that’ll change in a big way. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was published in 1961 and will be finally seen on the big screen with the starting lineup of Titanic actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Kathy Bates. Throw in Sam Mendes, the director of American Beauty, and you just may have a Best Picture Oscar nominee on your hands.
I’ve been obsessed with Yates since 2001, when The New Yorker printed a short story of his, “The Canal,” which concludes with this bit of beautiful ugliness of a couple in trouble:
“Betty,” Miller said. “Will you do me a favor?” And he watched her frown turn to a look of hurt in the light of a passing streetlamp. “Will you shut up? Will you please for God’s sake shut up?”
Like most writers, Yates hoped to be published in The New Yorker during his lifetime, but it never happened. “It seems clearer and clearer to me that his kind of fiction is not what we’re looking for,” wrote New Yorker fiction editor Roger Angell about Yates’ stories. I suppose you can say something like that when you have literary thoroughbreds like Cheever and Updike in your stable, but to me, it’s a shame that the magazine that supposedly showcases the finest writers of our time missed someone as talented as Yates.
When he died in 1992, I was a sophomore in college, oblivious to this writer’s passing. Nine years later, I would start reading Yates, and as I learned to appreciate every word of every sentence, my biggest regret was never being able to meet the man. I did everything I could to get closer: in 2003, the Housing Works bookstore in SoHo held a celebration for him, and I got to talk to Grace Schulman, a poet who was close friends with him back in the sixties. A month ago, I attended a reading at the Asian American Writer’s Workshop featuring Don Lee. After he read from his new novel, I asked him about Yates. Lee, who was the editor of Ploughshares for many years, wrote a lovely eulogy in the journal after his death, so I figured maybe he’d known him. He had indeed. Lee told me that when he got to Boston back in the eighties, what he wanted to do more than anything else was to meet the author. As luck would have it, on his second night in the city, that dream became a reality at Crossroads, a bar and restaurant on Beacon Street that Yates frequented.
“I just wanted to tell you that I’m a huge admirer of your work, Mr. Yates,” Lee said.
“Sit down,” Yates said, “have a drink.”
From all I’ve read, I knew Yates wasn’t always a pleasant man. There were plenty of stories of his drunken tirades and his mental instability (Disturbing the Peace, his third novel, was an autobiographical work that dealt with his convalescence at a psychiatric hospital), so maybe it was for the best that I got to know the best part of him: his writing.
Coming to that conclusion gave me the impetus to do something I’d been meaning to do for a while. Boston University’s Mugar Library houses the manuscript collection of Richard Yates, and my wife and I had tickets to see the Sox play at Fenway at the end of August. It was perfect timing.
If you have a favorite author who happens to have an archive of his or hers in some dusty, distant library, I would highly recommend a visit. It’s a hell of a high to hold and feel and read an earlier version of a manuscript of a serious writer at work, all those scribbled notes in the margins, paragraphs mercilessly excised with two crossing lines of a pen. I saw four different revisions of Revolutionary Road, and the sheer number of vastly different edits Yates made were not only astonishing but guilt-generating, because a month ago, I’d handed in the final edits of my first novel to my publisher. At that point, after working over my pages for what seemed like a Sisyphusian eternity, I couldn’t get it off the desk soon enough. But after seeing what Yates went through with his first novel, I felt like I could’ve done more, should’ve done more.
Lucky for me, the feeling didn’t last, because there was entirely too much to read from the collection and not enough time. If I had to pick my favorite Yates short story, it would be “A Glutton for Punishment,” a tale of a man who was “…a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse.” It’s actually quite a funny piece, and it starts like this:
For a little while when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends.
In the archives, there is an earlier draft of the same story (“A Game of Ambush”), which begins:
For a while when I was nine years old, my friends and I thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance…
For Walt Henderson, who lived next door to me…
I didn’t get a chance to read it from start to finish, but I did skim it, and not only was it completely different, it was a lesser story. Yates had a soft spot for F. Scott Fitzgerald, and you can see a bit of the Nick Carraway narrative dynamic here, and it suffered for it. Seeing these sorts of misdirections from a writer of his caliber was an invaluable experience, once again reaffirming the belief that there are no brilliant writers, only brilliant rewriters.
I could’ve spent a month in those archives, but it was closing time. Crossroads was within walking distance, so that’s what my wife and I did, walk to Yates’ bar, and had ourselves a couple of beers.
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