Thanks in part to Stewart O’Nan, whose essay, “The Lost World of Richard Yates,” appeared in the October/November 1999 issue of the Boston Review, readers are enjoying a long-overdue critical re-appreciation of the author of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, among a handful of other exquisitely written books. While the work of other writers of his generation, including Kurt Vonnegut, John Updike, and Norman Mailer, has been respected and admired by successive generations of readers, most of Yates’s work fell out of print and popularity during his lifetime. Despite the loyalty of his esteemed editor Sam Lawrence and a handful of writers who recognized the man’s genius through his bouts of madness and addictions, Yates was largely forgotten. He died in 1992. Today, all of Yates’s works are back in print, and the first full-length biography of the man—Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty, recently published by Picador—is positioned to draw a new generation of readers to one of the great American writers of the 20th century.
Although Bailey is passionate about his subject, anyone attending the reading and panel discussion about Yates on the evening of September 24 at Housing Works, a not-for-profit bookstore in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, knows that Bailey has not written a hagiography. Yates’s human failings are well documented: His bouts of mania ran the gamut from the frightening to the absurd. But perhaps one of the oddest episodes in Yates’s life came toward the end, when Yates was teaching at the University of Alabama. One evening, several of his graduate students joined him to watch an episode of the TV sitcom Seinfeld that was based on a dinner cocreator Larry David had with Yates years before. For Seinfeld afficionados, it’s “The Jacket” episode, wherein Elaine talks Jerry and George into having dinner with her father, Alton Benes, who is a great but neglected writer. Elaine needs her friends there because, she says, “I need a buffer.”
As Bailey writes in his biography, “Elaine is late, and Jerry and George are forced to make conversation with the dour Benes, who greets them with a coughing fit and scowls at their nonalcoholic beverages. ‘Which one’s the funny guy?’ he asks, and when George indicates Jerry, Benes fixes him with a baleful look and says, ‘We had a funny guy with us in Korea. Tail gunner. They blew his brains out all over the Pacific.’” The scene accelerates, in typical Seinfeld fashion, to great heights of social awkwardness.
Baily continues: “When the show was over, Yates sat smacking his lips. ‘Well,’ he said. ‘What’d you think?’ Sensing Yates’s chagrin throughout, the others had tried not to laugh, and now they could see how ‘scalded’ he looked. ‘Well,’ somebody broke the silence, ‘it was kind of funny, Dick.’ ‘I’d like to kill that son of a bitch!’ Yates erupted, and shambled out of the room.”