Category: Yates, Richard

the aristocracy didn’t believe in her

richard yates collected storWolff’s story “In the Garden of the North American Martyrs” drew me to his interview with the PARIS REVIEW, in which he tells a story after the interviewer mentions Richard Yates:

I came to his work rather late, I’m afraid. I started reading his stories in the early eighties and ended up using one—“Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired”—in an anthology I put together in 1983. Funny story about that. Yates was an odd duck, as is well known, and he did a drop take now and then. Now, when this anthology I’d edited, Matters of Life and Death, was coming out, the publisher arranged a launch reading for the book at a museum in Boston. Jayne Anne Phillips, Mary Robison, and Richard Yates were going to read, in that order. I showed up just before the reading, and met everybody in the lobby, and sat down with Yates for a little while—first time I’d met him—though he was hardly in a state to have much conversation with me. He was very, very drunk. He had on a beautiful suit that was full of cigarette holes, and his elbow kept slipping off the table, he could hardly put two sentences together, and I thought, Oh, well, what can one do, you know? And so the reading began, first Jayne Ann, then Mary, and Yates was slumped in the front row and every once in a while you’d see his head bob up violently and you’d know he’d gone to sleep. Now, “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” is a very long story, and it’s written in a complex language, full-throated sentences, delicately inflected, nuanced. How was he going to get through a page of it? But when Mary Robison ended her reading and Yates was introduced, he made his way to the podium and read that story without dropping a comma. He read it in a beautiful, smoke-cured, gravelly voice. It was a wonderful reading. A perfect reading. Professional doesn’t even begin to describe it. And then he came off the podium and I went up to congratulate him and he was drunk again.

You can read that story here, along with some random MFA pieces, and you can see a taped reading by him on YouTube. It’s true: his voice is gravelly. Everybody says Thomas Pynchon’s voice sounds like Jeff Lebowski, and Yates reminds me of Pynchon’s voice if he spent a decade as a crabber and came back a salty ol’ sea captain, the kind of voice that results from chain-smoking Pall Malls after your lungs have already been wrecked by Tuberculosis (and Albert Camus also kept his habit after TB at a young age, how did these guys do it?!). Anyway, it’s a beautifully sad story: the setting is vividly rendered and the whole thing is immaculately composed.