The Classics

Photo by Jill Krementz

The late novelist Brian Moore once told me that his heart would have sunk if his son had decided to become a writer. The reason, Moore said, was that so many writers he’d known had led such difficult lives. The one writer he mentioned in particular was Richard Yates, who struggled, much like some of Yates’ characters, with drink and bitterness and failed aspirations. A realist, Yates was the author of 1961’s acclaimed Revolutionary Road and six other novels, and came to influence a number of writers, such as Robert Stone, Tobias Wolff, and Richard Ford, who wrote in the acknowledgments of his book Women With Men, “I wish to record my debt of gratitude to the stories and novels of Richard Yates, a writer too little appreciated.” Indeed, after Yates died in 1992, most of his works quickly fell out of print. But in 1999, novelist Stewart O’Nan wrote a piece for the Boston Review, calling for a renewed effort to publish Yates. Last year, Vintage brought out a new edition of Revolutionary Road with a foreword by Ford. And now Henry Holt is publishing The Collected Stories of Richard Yates with an introduction by Richard Russo. This past week, the Weekly spoke with author and Yates admirer Michael Chabon, via e-mail, about Yates and his legacy.

—Tom Christie

L.A. WEEKLY: When you begin reading a Yates story, you’re often confronted with characters who are not immediately . . . attractive, or attracting — low-level white-collar workers about to be fired, for instance, or not-so-talented sculptors or teachers or students doomed to some kind of mediocrity. And yet something happens there: You’re pulled into this world Yates creates, and you can’t really get out. Nor do you want to. Still, one feels a kind of relief when it’s over. What happens here, and why? And what can writers learn from Yates, technically and otherwise?

MICHAEL CHABON: I think the atmosphere, the approach, the cast of characters and the literary project you’re describing are actually pretty typical of the short story in general. The difficult combination of brevity and depth that the story form demands has always made it liable to a certain delicate brutality, if that makes any sense, and the short story has always tended to attract writers whose view of human behavior and human beings might be described as “critical” or even “jaundiced.” The people who make up the world of Flannery O’Connor’s stories, or of Carver’s — even of Joyce’s and Chekhov’s, though their more remote historicity, the gaslight and troikas, filters their ugliness somewhat — seem very rarely to be “attractive.” The archetypical — indeed, I might even argue, the necessary — protagonist of the short story is mired in his or her own mediocrity, and usually in denial or even blissfully ignorant of it.

To answer the second part of your question, Yates is a master of classic story structure, of finding the revealing episode or culminating incident in the history of a human relationship and then dramatizing it effectively through sharp dialogue and a terse, vivid style. I also think that his unflinching honesty, the way he has (unlike O’Connor) of somehow implicating himself in, or at least of not holding himself above, the human mess, is instructive and ultimately bracing.

You have described Yates’ as a “vanished world.” Do you mean simply the world he writes about, or his kind of writing?

I mean very specifically the milieu of his classic stories — postwar New York City of the ’50s and early ’60s — the milieu that Cheever’s characters, by that point, have mostly abandoned for the suburbs.

Why should younger readers care about this vanished world, and its creator, or observer?

This is, to me, a weird question. The hidden premise seems to be that younger readers have to be somehow nudged, induced, sold, lured or lectured into caring about writers of a previous era. My default setting is “not interested” in contemporary writing. I need to be nudged, induced, sold, lured and lectured into caring about a new writer or new work. Yates’ stories and his great novels, Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, have never lost their hold over a small but devoted legion of fans. They have lasted beautifully.

Why do you feel he had a not-so-great career?

Well, I don’t think his alcoholism, which was apparently extreme and even at times horrific, helped. And, unlike other boozing writers who manage to turn even their worst efforts into cult successes, there was nothing self-congratulatory or mock-heroic in his excesses.

Should readers (and writers) use the collected stories as a way into his novels, as with many writers, or are the stories his primary legacy? Should the “new” stories have been included here?

Revolutionary Road is one of the best American novels of the second half of the 20th century. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. And though it has its flaws, I love The Easter Parade, too. More than any other of his works, it offers, in the end — the very end, and with deep reservations — a possibility of redemption. A couple of the “new” stories are really worthwhile additions to the canon. The others are perhaps merely interesting.

You just received the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. We have to ask: How does it feel?

It feels pretty good, I must say. Marred only by the untimely death of Joey Ramone and lingering sadness over Willie Stargell . . .


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