In 1990, two years before his death, Richard Yates, author of Revolutionary Road, was the Endowed Chairholder in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama. My own first (and only) novel had just been accepted for publication by St. Martin’s Press, so even though I was an undergraduate, they let me sign up for his graduate seminar for writers. I had been allowed in the one previous, as well, taught by the vigorous and bouyant Russell Banks, whose novel Continental Drift had recently been nominated for a Pulitzer, and was supposed to go into movie production soon (I don’t think it did, but later books of his, The Sweet Hereafter and Affliction, were medium-to-big budget Hollywood dealies) and who was very much an up-and-coming Player, let us say, in the publishing world and otherwise. Capital P. Player. Russell helped me a lot in my career, such as it would turn out to be (I could’ve been a contender, or whatever, but my own lack of focus and sense of entitlement kept me out of the championship matches). Russell also divorced his wife and married our poetry professor in the middle of his tenure. Anyway: Richard Yates was nothing like that. He was not like that at all.
He was just old and sad.
I don’t mean either of these things in a disparaging way. Please understand me. Oldness and sadness clung to him, funky as cigarette smoke. He was old. He was very, very old. I would like to be able to say this in other words, but there are no other words. He was old, older than anybody else who ever lived, regardless of how long they happened to have done so. He was sad. He was very, very sad, so sad that he made everybody around him uncomfortable because of it. Or, at least, he made my friends and me uncomfortable, undergraduates and graduates alike. After all, we were about to embark on our own literary careers. Despite what our parents, and even our teachers, had told us about how stupid we were being, our conception of the potentially vast rewards of a such careers were way out of tune with reality. We were going to “make it.” We were going to be Ernest Hemingway or Margaret Atwood (another recent Endowed Chairholder, fresh off the success of Handmaid’s Tale) or John Irving, best friend of one of our teachers, banging out best-sellers that also won the hearts of the critics and were guaranteed to go down in history as Major Novels Forever Etc. We were going to be Russell Banks, tooling around in a Mercedes, sharing anecdotes about the silliness of Hollywood producers. We were not going to be, we were never going to be, we would be damned if we were going to turn out — old and sad, old and sad, old and sad.
Here are some memories:
I was wearing a “Silence = Death” button in class the first day. He stopped class to ask me what it meant. I told him that if we didn’t talk about AIDS, more people would die. He said that he got it. Later, I overheard him asking the head of the Creative Writing program if I was a homosexual.
He smoked constantly, in class and otherwise. He smoked, and then coughed, and then smoked, and then coughed, and then smoked. And then flirted with the women in the class, whom he called “girls.” While lighting a cigarette, while coughing.
He had never heard of Toni Morrison. We actually talked him into adding her recent masterpiece Beloved to the syllabus (there was room for an extra book, for some reason). He enjoyed it a lot.
Bob Dylan happened to be giving a concert on campus that year. He sneered. “You don’t want to go listen to that angry young man, do you?” Reminder: this was 1990. Also: he was not being ironic.
“I fell out of touch with Vonnegut,” he said. “He’s a nice man, but how do you keep up with a guy like that? You can’t. He’s a star. He’s got a lot of demands on his time.”
He’s the one who told me that the National Book Award mattered, and the Pulitzer did not. The Pulitzer had its roots in journalism, you see, and so its literature awards were always marred by timeliness and issues-orientation, “just like the Nobel.”
He also said that, given what he had observed at the time it happened, the thing that made Vonnegut’s career take off was the film version of Slaughterhouse-5, bad as it was. “A movie isn’t really a version of your book. It’s just a marketing campaign for it. So all the wrong people go see the movie and only the movie. So what? All the right people get reminded that your book exists, that’s what matters. All it takes is one movie, and you can be a literary lion forever.”
One day he came into the fast food joint where I worked (publication of my novel had not resulted in the world throwing money at me; I was well on my way to oldness and sadness myself). He had locked his oxygen tank in his house, and was afraid he was going to die. He needed help. I called the English department and they sent somebody to help him out, one of my fellow students from his class. He sat in the formica booth by the window, waiting. And smoking.
That was the last time I saw him. Class had been over for months by that time. He stayed in Tuscaloosa after his tenure as Endowed Chairholder ended, probably because it was a cheap place to live. I never heard anything about Richard Yates, or even saw his name, until the film version of Revolutionary Road came out a while back. Now he’s turning up everywhere. There’s even a snotty young writer who has named a novel after him. I guess he was right about the movie thing.
Here’s an article I found about his last days in Tuscaloosa. He still makes me sad. Again, please, let me repeat: I don’t mean that in a bitchy thirteen-year-old playground taunt kind of way. I just mean that he makes me sad. He makes me old and sad.
- Revolutionary after all these years (baroqueinhackney.wordpress.com)