I used to live here. 127 Beacon Street, Boston. That's my window. I don't know what's behind it now. When I lived behind it there was a one-room apartment with a high ceiling, brown walls, and a bed that folded up into a closet, a real Murphy bed that was one of the most comfortable racks I've ever had the pleasure to count sheep in. There wasn't much else. A refrigerator in the corner, a small table by the window, a desk I never used---for some reason I did most of my writing and reading stretched out on the floor. I had a bathroom that must have been decent enough. I can't recall it to my mind's eye. All there was for a kitchen was a hot plate and a sink in a short hallway between the bathroom and the main room, which wasn't a problem because I was working three jobs and wasn't home very often for lunch or dinner. I didn't have a phone, which also wasn't a problem, because of those three jobs---it was easy enough to get hold of me at the bookstore or the movie theater or the projection booth at school, and if I wasn't any of those places I'd be at the blonde's, who had an apartment with a real kitchen and a phone and a friendly and obliging roommate who had her own boyfriend with an apartment upstairs. When I was in my apartment and had to make a call I ran up to a market a few blocks away on Charles Street where I often bumped into the mayor who'd be there with his dogs, a matched set of golden retrievers.
I did a lot of walking up and down Beacon Street during the eight months I lived there. I'd walk up, past the Public Garden, then cut across the Common to get to the bookstore and the movie theater. I'd walk down, through the whole of Back Bay, to get to school and the blonde's. When I walked down Beacon I passed this place, the Crossroads, which I don't think billed itself as an Irish Pub yet. It was just a restaurant with a bar. I never went in. There were lots of restaurants with bars, most of them more inviting looking than the Crossroads. I'm not sure if I ever gave the place a thought.
If I had gone in, for lunch or dinner, practically any day of the week, I'd have probably noticed a haggard, haunted-looking, prematurely old man in his mid-fifties, sitting with his chin in his hand, chain-smoking, in a front booth, alone, almost always alone.
I'd have noticed him because of his fits of explosive coughing. He smoked like a stove, four packs a day, and had emphysema. He didn't need it then, but by the end of his life he was dragging around an oxygen tank everywhere he went---and he was still smoking.
I'd heard of Richard Yates but I hadn't read Revolutionary Road or Eleven Kinds of Loneliness yet, and if someone had dragged me into the Crossroads and pointed him out, all alone in his booth where he ate almost all of his meals and did a great deal of his heavy and solitary drinking during the eleven years he lived in Boston, I wouldn't have been impressed. Of course, in those days, the only contemporary writer I was really impressed with was the one I was sure I was going to be. But I'd met, and had as teachers, other more famous and successful writers. A few years later, after I'd read Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and decided it was one of the two perfect short story collections in the English language, the other being Dubliners by James Joyce, and I'd learned that I'd walked past his favorite watering hole God knows how many times when he was probably in there, I felt a twinge of regret at my missed opportunity. But it was only a twinge and it passed in a hurry and never came back until today, because by then I'd also learned from people who'd known him in Boston and others who'd met him in Iowa that Yates was a miserable wreck of a human being, a depressed and depressing old drunk, self-defeating and pathetic, a bitter and scornful failed writer who hated himself for both his talent and his failure, in short a cliche of the sort he'd never permitted himself to write into one of his stories (but which, sadly, he allowed to become the main character of his last, unfinished novel), and who wants to have to face the fact that one of their literary heroes is a cliche?
I started reading Blake Bailey's biography of Yates, A Tragic Honesty , this afternoon. That's what brought back the twinge of regret.
The reason I was working the three jobs is that I was trying, unsteadily and unsuccessfully, to put away some money for grad school. I had my heart set on Iowa, but it was a given that I would be admitted to Boston University's creative writing program if I applied. I'd taken several classes taught by the director, Leslie Epstein, who assured me the fix was in. Beacon Street runs into Bay State Road and from time to time I'd stop in at the brownstone where the Creative Writing Program was housed to check in with Leslie, let him know how things were going, and remind him who I was. It turns out that I was coming closer to meeting Yates there than I was passing by the Crossroads all the time. He was teaching at BU that spring. I don't remember if Leslie ever mentioned that. If he had, Richard Yates would have been just a name to me. I'm pretty sure I never ran into Yates in the building. He'd have presented a startling figure.
In the mid-eighties Yates's former acquaintances would sometimes see a gaunt, stupefied, ragged old man staggering around the streets of Boston; an incredulous second look would confirm that he wretch was none other than Richard Yates. The usual impulse was to hurry away before one was recognized by this poor ghost, though of course there was no danger of that. When not in the hospital or seated at his desk, Yates spent his days in an alcoholic fog.
He was different in the classroom. Bailey says his students "adored" him:
"Dick was depressed and very frail but dignified," said his student Natalie Baturka. "He elicited awe from us. Unlike Jayne Anne [Philips] and Leslie, who were young and trying to prove themselves, Dick seemed not to give a fuck what others thought of him, but he was also fragile and insecure. In class, though, he had an air of effortless authority." The paradox of Yates's self-assurance and terrible vulnerability---noted by many---occurred to Melanie Rae Thon one day when he called to praise a story of hers. "He was the finest reader I've ever known," she said. "He'd read through a story and see everything you intended there, and give you a vision of what your story could be if you had the patience to bring it to fruition." Unqualified praise from such a reader was a rare, exalting experience, and Thon was feeling pleased with herself when suddenly Yates's voice became small and shy: "Do you ever read my work...?"
He was less inclined than ever to mediate wrangling in his workshop; while his students "beat the shit out of each other," as Baturka put it, Yates would listen placidly and later buy the class a pitcher of beer at a campus bar. "Dad's gonna make it all better," he'd say, and presently a spirit of relative amity would prevail.
A Tragic Honesty came out six years ago. Bailey's most recent book, published in March, is a biography of John Cheever, which, I wrote last month, I wasn't going to read because I didn't think I could stand to spend 784 pages in that miserable man's company. Cheever, I meant, not Bailey. Yates, however, was a different kind of miserable (and Bailey's devoted only 613 pages to his misery), and I think I can muster the necessary sympathy to get me through the book. All the stories I heard about Cheever at Iowa were nasty and mean. All the stories I heard about Yates were sad. People put up with Cheever. They loved Yates. After I wrote that post about Cheever I read several essays John Updike wrote about him. One was essentially an obituary, a fond and sympathetic good-bye from a fellow writer who admired his talent and thought of him as a friend. Another was a review of Cheever's letters and in it Updike had to confront the fact that the man he admired and thought of as a friend despised him and belittled him and his work to other writers. Updike managed to deal with this with grace, sympathy, and some humor. Cheever was a mean and petty bastard. Yates was a pitiful if sometimes noble wreck. Bastards usually make for more dramatic reading than pitiful wrecks, but we'll see how it goes.
A Tragic Honesty drew me right in, though, because it begins with a colleague and friend searching for the manuscript of Yates' last novel in the hours after Yates' death in November of 1992. Yates was calling the novel Uncertain Times and it was based on his experiences as a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy in the 1960s. I'd never heard of it. Yates' books have been in and out of print since his death---they're currently back in---so I guessed it was possible that I'd just missed it during its one or several short appearances in the bookstores. I doubted that though, and I expected that what Bailey was leading up to was that the manuscript had been lost or, more tragically, had never existed, that Yates had been promising his publisher a book he was too sick or too worn-out or too drunk to write. But no! The friend, after searching through Yates' dirty and stale with the smell of beer and cigarette smoke duplex and coming up with nothing, is about to give up looking when he has an inspiration. He goes into the kitchen, opens the pathetically unstocked refrigerator---Yates had pretty much given up solid food---and reaches into the freezer, "the poor man's fireproof safe." And there it is! A final masterpiece saved!
Except that it wasn't a masterpiece.
I skipped to the end Bailey's book to find out what happened to Uncertain Times.
It turns out that it was never published. It was never finished. It was a book that Yates was too sick, too worn-out, and, possibly, too drunk to write. But he wrote it anyway.
I'm not sure how good a book it would have been if he'd been able to complete it and revise it. According to Bailey, the Yates character isn't an observer and vicarious participant in great events, like Jack Burden, in All the King's Men . He's the book's hero or, more exactly, its anti-hero, and Robert Kennedy is missing from the story for very long stretches at a time. A book about Bobby Kennedy in which Bobby Kennedy is a secondary character while the protagonist is a broken-spirited and mentally rickety writer more wrapped up in his own problems with women than with the political crises his boss is dealing with seems misconceived to me. I doubt Yates himself imagined he was on the right track. But then it doesn't sound as though he was imagining at all. It sounds like he was remembering. He was awfully sick. He probably didn't have the strength to imagine. Probably he didn't feel he had the time either. He was writing fast, trying to get ahead of death.
When I wrote my post on Bailey's Cheever biography last month, James Wolcott's review for Vanity Fair wasn't yet available online. Now it is: It's Still Cheever Country.