Tragic Honesty

Bailey, Blake. A Tragic Honesty: the Life and Work of Richard Yates. New York: Picador, 2003.

Reason read: Yates was born in February. Read in his honor.

Does anyone remember the silent film star Louise Brooks? I didn’t know a thing about her until Natalie Merchant wrote a the biographical song, Lulu. I imagine Richard Yates’s life was viewed much the same way. A good handful of people (myself included) probably didn’t know his work until Blake Bailey wrote about his tragic life.
And what a tragedy it was. Yates was an extremely intelligent man plague with insecurities that were held at bay only by a beautiful dame or a tall drink. Sadly, Yates was addicted to both and the uncontrollable addiction to the latter drove away the even the most devoted former. Underneath it all Yates was a devoted father, a talented writer, and a lost soul. I will look forward to reading Easter Parade.
Be forewarned: there came a point in the narrative when I felt there was nothing more to Yates’s biography than loneliness, illness, loneliness, alcoholism and more loneliness. Starting around the 1970s Bailey churned out episode after drunken episode of alcoholic excess peppered with mental illness and trips to the psych ward. Truly depressing stuff…especially as Yates grew weaker and weaker and more pathetic.

I wasn’t a fan of the footnote on nearly every other page method. I realize Bailey wanted to expound on details in a more personal voice and chose to do so at the bottom of the page but to me the practice was the equivalent of someone next to you whispering commentary while you are trying to watch a movie. The quips and comments are interesting but disruptive to the main narrative.

Confessional: I think it is most difficult to read a biography when you are completely unfamiliar with the subject. I have Yates on my Challenge list (of course I do), but I haven’t read him yet. I have to admit I am worried about how much knowing Yates’s personal life will color my opinion of his craft. But, from everything I have read I needn’t worry. Yates wrote autobiographically 97% of the time.
As an in-the-weeds aside, I wonder if a college writing teacher ever accused Yates of being “slickly professional” the first time he was able to articulate close-to-the-bone “fiction.” Before you ask, yes, this happened to me when I finally steered away from pure imagination and put real-life experience on paper. I found myself marching into a professor’s office, hand clutching my Somebody in tow…

Quote to quote just for the imagery, “Sometimes the hacking and vomiting would go on for hours before his lungs were clear enough to light a cigarette and get on with his work” (p 182).

Author fact: Bailey is better known for his biographies of Cheever.

Book trivia: There is a great clump of black and white photos included in A Tragic Honesty. I especially like the picture of Yates and Martha being interviewed. There is something endearing about them together.

Nancy said: Pearl hopes A Tragic Honesty will “revive interest in Yates’s spare and crystalline prose” (More Book Lust p 145). To a point, Pearl is right. I looked forward to reading Easter Parade more so because of Bailey’s biography.

BookLust Twist: from More Book Lust in the chapter called “Literary Lives: the Americans (p 144).



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