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Golden Globes preview: Richard Yates at the BPL in 1978 [mp3]

The best Revolutionary Road adaptation of 2008, hands down, was season 2 of Mad Men. If Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road takes home any of the bazilion Golden Globe awards it's up for on Sunday night, it'll have very little to do with the limp, Titanicized performances of Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio, and every bit to do with the enormous (and justly deserved) reputation that Richard Yates's novel has acquired over the past half-century. Writers in 2008, as they did in 1958, as they did in 1978, passed dogeared copies around like Slint LPs. (I was beaten into the cult of Yates in 2001, a year after Stewart O'Nan's kick-starting reappraisal in the Boston Review, when's Jon Garelick wrote about the resurrection of Yates's reputation via a new paperback of Rev Road  introduced by Richard Ford -- who called it a "cultural-literary secret handshake" -- and a newly-collected edition of Yates stories intro'd by Richard Russo.) The film adaptation, a dud on arrival, was nonetheless an excuse for the literary critics of record to drag out the big guns and offer another generation of praise for a cult classic that's finally become, it seems, a consensus classic. And miraculously, like the Pixies reuniting to play sold-out arenas 20 years after the fact, Revolutionary Road finally cracked the NYT best-seller list this year. 

In all the fuss, Yates's novel is often described as an attack on the suburbs, or 1950s conformity. This was not how Yates saw it at all. For him, above all else, Revolutionary Road was a book about abortion. "Everything gets aborted in the book," Yates told DeWitt Henry in 1972. (Henry has posted the audio of his interview with Yates on Emerson's website.) "That was supposed to be the theme of the book. I remember when I was first working on it and feeling my way into it, somebody at a party asked me what I was writing a novel about, and I said I thought I was writing a novel about abortion. And the guy said what do you mean by that? And I said, it's going to be built on a series of abortions, of all kinds - an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams - all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a death at the end. And maybe that's about as close to a real summation of the book as I've ever come"

When James Woods offered his reassessment  in the New Yorker earlier this month, he sidebarred into Yates's early short stories (collected as 11 Kinds of Heartbreak), and in particular into "The Best of Everything," "a masterpiece of bleakness, equal to one of Joyce’s stories in Dubliners." "The Best of Everything" was written in 1952, almost a decade before Revolutionary Road. But it stuck with him. More than a quarter century later, in 1978, Yates was brought to the Boston Public Library to promote his then-new novel A Good School, which had a shade of a local angle in that it was set at a New England boarding school. A few years earlier he'd split with his second wife, and he was living in Boston. He was then, as throughout his adult life, a vicious alcoholic, and he was living in cockroach-infested apartments. "He barely ate," recalled his biographer, Blake Bailey. "He didn't have much of an appetite. He was one of those alcoholics who had lost interest in food. But every morning he got the writing done. And during those first Boston years in the mid-seventies, after he spent the year getting [ex-wife] Martha out of his system, the drinking was tapered off. He would have maybe a couple of Michelobs at lunch at the Crossroads [a bar near Mass Ave on Beacon Street], and then he would take a nap and then he would write again in the afternoon, having written four hours in the morning. And then he would go and get drunk for dinner. But goddamn, by that time he had written for seven hours."

When Yates showed up at the BPL in fall of 1978, he declined to dip into A Good School -- or into any of his novels -- and he instead returned to "The Best of Everything," reading the story in its entirety. "This is gonna take about a half an hour," he says, and goes on to apologize for reading "an antique." After he reads it, a moderator opens the floor to questions. There is only silence. Yates can be heard muttering in the background. "Oh no, I'm sure they're not bored," the moderator reassures him. 

Here's the audio of Yates reading at the BPL in 1978:

DOWNLOAD: Richard Yates reads "The Best of Everything (October 4, 1978)" [mp3]

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  • don warner saklad said:

    What are the ranges of the audio archives of our local Boston Public Library?...

    Who are the BPL curatorial experts for BPL's audio archives?...

    There does appear to be some material at //

    January 10, 2009 6:47 AM
  • josh said:

    Thanks Carly, this is excellent.  I had no idea such good audio of Yates reading existed--is there more in the archive?

    January 10, 2009 2:40 PM
  • Rita Bailey said:

    I listened to Yates reading from one of his books and pretended it was me.  I love his ability for natural conversation and he seemed, very much, to believe in his own work.  Thank you for offering this on the net.

    January 16, 2009 5:28 PM
  • Stickler said:

    The collection you referred to is called "Eleven kinds of lonliness" not "Eleven kinds of heartbreak," but otherwise an interesting post. Thanks for the links to the audio recordings. I've been wondering what Yates's speaking voice sounded like.

    June 30, 2009 4:04 PM

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