March 9, 2005

A Tragic Honesty


I’m only 250 pages into this book--it’s 600 pages long--but I’m probably going to have the same reaction at the end of this book as at the beginning. It’s been a really profound experience, another book that hit me at exactly the right time. If you don’t know Richard Yates, this book might not be so interesting to you, but Richard Yates is my God. I wrote about it somewhat in this older entry, one of my first posts here.

It’s awfully strange to read the biography of my God and see what was going on behind all the writing I’ve loved for so many years. Part of me wonders what it would have been like to read this book when I was at the peak of my Yates obsession. I recently rented the live Led Zeppelin DVD "How the West Was Won" which has live footage from 1969 to the late seventies. It was awesome but I thought, "Damn, why couldn’t I have seen this when I was fifteen?"

The Yates book is different because now I have a better perspective on his life: his countless rejections, raising a daughter, writing business manuals and pamphlets for pay--not so dissimilar from the job I am doing now. I am not equating myself with him, but I can empathize in a way that I couldn’t have when I was 19, 20, 21 and reading everything I could by him--I’ve read every word of his ever published.

I was pleased and sort of alarmed to find that his own father doesn’t look so different from mine, at least the picture in the book. Weird too because my family is thoroughly Jewish and his was thoroughly not. Unfortunately, Yates looks a lot like a "friend" of mine who I later found out beats his girlfriends. Yates was often a disturbing mess which I can’t say I aspire to be--though at one point I thought it was romantic.

The most ridiculous anecdote in the book is that the character of Elaine on "Seinfeld" is based on his daughter. Larry David, Seinfeld creator, once dated Yates’ daughter and based the character on her. There’s even an episode where they go to meet Elaine’s father, the "great writer," which is based on the time when Larry David met Richard Yates. These are two worlds that should absolutely not cross. The sarcastic wise ass and Yates who’s painfully sincere--ironic, yes, but always after the truth, which you can’t exactly say about "Seinfeld."

The book itself is well-done, but the author is so enamored with his subject that it sometimes reads like a Yates novel so you cannot always tell what’s true and what’s a fictionalized account. I was surprised just how much Yates’ work is autobiographical--almost to a Thomas Wolfean extent. My main complaint is there are too many footnotes so you have to keep looking down on the page. Man, if something is important enough to print, put it in a paragraph. Better than on the page than in the back. To be honest, there aren’t that many footnotes.

One thing that has disconcerted me over the years is that I think Richard Yates would hate my writing. He once said that there’s no reason to write about villains because there’s enough villainous behavior in people’s everyday lives. I am just not that interested in writing about people’s everyday lives. And my writing is absolutely not as refined and subtle as Yates’--where people give themselves away in conversation. Sometimes I think I get too explicit, but that’s what comes out of me.

If you’ve never read Richard Yates, start with Revolutionary Road--I link to it down on the right. It can be harrowing and depressing but the detail he presents in people’s every waking thought, conscious and unconscious, is masterful. I guess I am also interested in the underbelly of things, so instead of berating myself that Yates would hate me, I’ll just look at it like I’m doing something different with what I’ve tried to learn from him.


Anonymous said...

I'm in more of a Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew kind of mood.

John Baker said...

Richard Yates is currently my favourite writer. I found him late and am not hurrying through his published writings, hoping to space out each novel so there's always a treat waiting for me when I need it. Maybe I'll get around to the biography one day, but not until I've read all the novels.

Henry Baum said...

That's cool. Enjoy it. I'm reading this biography at the pace of one chapter a night. Even if I want to read more I stop because I don't want it to end.

Krahe said...

I'm a student researching Richard Yates for a year long project for my Honors English class....I'm in need of a review on the book a Special Providence,New York Times, Harpers, it doesn't matter as long as it's published on line by someone who has gone to college and gotten a degree in English, or works as a reviewer for a living, I would appreciate it greatly if all you fans could help me out..PS Read a special providence, after you read Revolutionary road, it will make it seem even better.

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