Richard Yates -- A Meeting

by Martin Jukovsky


I routinely do a search for "Richard Yates" on the Web, and so was pleased to find your Web site as a result. I agree with your opinion on Yates. He is the finest unrecognized American writer. I dote on him. I keep multiple copies of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade (my favorites) to introduce friends to his writings. Once they have read Yates, they are usually impressed and want more.

Yates is always right on the mark with his dialogue and descriptions. He treads the same ground as, for instance, John Updike, but is so much better. The writers (modern, English-speaking) that I feel can hold up in comparison with Yates are John O'Hara and William Trevor. O'Hara has the same golden ear for dialogue as Yates; Trevor (overdue for a Nobel) manages the same kind of poignancy and bleakness. Both, like Yates, establish breathing characters through terse, meaningful dialogue and description.

I recently took down Revolutionary Road to reread the section where Frank as a boy goes to lunch with his dad and Oat Fields. That is a powerful piece of writing, with the image of Oat Fields' teeth chewing on his food. I felt myself being pulled into the book and had to force myself to stop.

I spent an afternoon with Yates in Boston in 1986. After a Red Sox game, my wife and a friend went to the Crossroads Bar for a beer. We had heard that Yates hung out there (in fact, he lived upstairs from it), so she was not surprised when she spotted him there. She went over to him and said, "Aren't you Richard Yates, America's greatest unrecognized writer?" He liked that and chatted with her for a bit. She said that I was a great admirer and would enjoy meeting him. They agreed that the three of us would meet next week at the Crossroads.

When the day came, my wife was not able to make it, so I went alone. Yates and I sat talking in a booth for several hours. It was a strange and somewhat distressing afternoon. Though he was only drinking club soda that afternoon (no alcohol per dentist's orders, as he was having tooth problems), the effects of long-term alcoholism were all over him. Physically, he was a wreck: though in his sixties, he looked at least ten years older--about thirty years older than his dust-jacket photo. He kept up a brilliant stream of conversation, but his voice had a tremble. He would often drift into old woes, such as regrets about his marriage; when this happened, he would seem ready to break into tears, his voice would get this odd, weepy sound, though he never actually cried. We talked about writers we had both read: he liked Richard Price, Scott Spencer, Hilma Wolitzer; he disliked (to my surprise) the short stories of William Carlos Williams.

I told him how moved I was by certain parts of his most recent book, Young Hearts Crying. He dismissed the book, saying it was soap opera and only written to fulfill a contract. (This led to a whole obsessive thread about his being tied into a rotten contract and a relationship with a wretched literary agent that he would like to undo. He asked for my help on the matter. I said I would research it as best I could and get back to him. I did phone him a week later and explained that there wasn't much I could find out.) We discussed The Easter Parade. He told me that he was able to write so knowledgeably about the two sisters because it was mainly autobiographical--he was one of the sisters. Yates talked about his daughter, of whom he was very proud: she was also a novelist. He also spoke very appreciably of Kurt Vonnegut as a friend. I asked him if he had read William Trevor, whom I thought he would like because of their similar outlooks and writing styles. To my surprise, he was not familiar with Trevor. I told him I would send him a book of Trevor's short stories (which I did several weeks later, but Yates had moved on and it was returned in the mail -- addressee left no forwarding address). We ended the afternoon with my promise to call him about the agent matter and vague talk about getting together again (we didn't).

Later that evening, I recounted the afternoon on a tape recorder so I would have an account of it. The tape is somewhere in the house; once I find it, if you're interested, I can make a copy for you.

After Yates died, I did some detective work to find out the fate of his writings. The obits said he was working on a novel. Was it finished? Close to finished? Could anything be salvaged? Were there any other unpublished writings? I called various people at his publishing house, here in Boston and in New York. I spoke to his literary agency. I was told that there was a novel, but there were only fragments and it couldn't be made into a complete book. No, there weren't any other writings. I was told that a fragment of the novel would be published in a literary magazine out of New York called Open City. I finally found the magazine a couple of years ago in Barnes & Noble and read Yates's fragment. It's a wonderful, funny piece based on his stint as a speech writer for Bobby Kennedy. Too bad. This novel would have been up there with Yates's best.

I'm grateful to have met and spent time with Richard Yates, though the experience was at times unsettling. He was obviously in pain, temporarily sober, but remarkably in full possession of his great writing talent. I've read all of his books, and feel ready to reread many of them. (I even have a very rare item: Stories for the Sixties, selected and with an introduction by Yates.) Perhaps someday he'll get his due.

Martin Jukovsky
Cambridge, Mass.

©Martin Jukovsky

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