Wolff’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.