This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

May 29, 2001 — It's one of the sweetest yet saddest stories of the year: Richard Yates, ten years dead, has hit the big time.

The author of eight novels ("Easter Parade," "Revolutionary Road") and two collections of short stories ("Liars in Love," "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness") was critically praised during his lifetime, and regularly published in major literary publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire and Ploughshares. Still, Yates never achieved a major readership, and he took it hard — gaining a reputation as a sweet man quietly killing himself with drink, until he did indeed pass away in 1992 at the age of 66.

But then, in January, Yates achieved what was, during his lifetime, every fiction writer's dream: the publication of one of his stories in the New Yorker, the magazine that had rejected his work when it was new.

Well, as with seemingly everything else that appears in that magazine nowadays, the story was actually serialized from a book due out soon afterwards, a collected works — another honor that escaped him while he was still around — called "The Collected Stories of Richard Yates" (Holt).

And the book has taken off since its appearance last month, getting the critical praise Yates was used to, but on a much larger scale. Thanks to this, his stories are now getting the mass readership they never got while he was alive. Sales have been so good, in fact, that several of Yates' out–of–print books are being rushed back into print. (Picador will reissue "The Good School" and "Easter Parade" later this month.)

Meanwhile, a group of famous writers has volunteered to help the publisher promote the book by giving an "author's tour" — Jayne Ann Phillips, Richard Bausch, Ethan Canin, Michael Chabon, Tobias Wolff, and others will be giving readings of Yates' work around the country.

It's been a moving story for those who admired Yates' work. For me, it's been doubly moving because — well, because I was his bartender.

Long before I had any idea who Richard Yates was, I served him beer in a Boston tavern. He showed up every afternoon at four, sometimes accompanied by one or two young men or women I later learned were his students, but often alone. He'd order a burger from the kitchen, a beer from me, and an ashtray from the barmaid. He was always gone by seven, but he did a lot of damage to himself during those three hours, given frightening display by his incessant, gut–wrenching cough.

Then one night I went to a fiction reading — my first. It featured writers who'd been included in a just–released anthology edited by Tobias Wolff, "Matters of Life and Death." One of the writers, as it turned out, was Yates. But it wasn't until Wolff introduced him and the tall, white–haired, bone–thin man that I knew simply as Richard cautiously unwound from his front–row seat that I put two and two together.

Yates was the final reader that night, and the short story he read — "Oh Joseph, I'm So Tired" — wasn't that short. On top of that, he was a very slow reader, with old–fashioned mannerisms; his scratchy voice went up carefully for the women's dialogue, and down for the men's. Combined with his dramatically attenuated appearance, it was like being read to by a character out of Dickens. And the drama was only heightened by the coughing jags, which were extreme enough to make you wonder if he was going to live to the end of the story.

Which is to say it was one of the most absorbing readings I've ever attended. I've never been so persuaded by a writer to focus on the story as I was by Yates. His tenacious dedication to the careful enunciation of every word despite his illness was a powerful lesson in writerly humility.

And his gritty display of his frailty, his weaknesses, provided another kind of lesson, one that cut through all the silly mythologies about two–fisted, hard–drinking writers . Yates' beautiful story that night turned out to be a wise cautionary tale for me, in more ways than one.

All of which gave me my first insight into the fact that it's the words on the page — the text — that matter most, not the performance quality of the reader, even at a public reading.

It's the text, after all, that survives, as Richard Yates is still proving.

Last Week’s Column: VANITY, THY NAME IS FOREWORD ForeWord Magazine's plan to get authors to pay them for reviews seems insane, not to mention unethical — but they're doing it anyway. Why?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.