Wednesday, July 29, 2009

When Novelists Sober Up

Ed here: Richard Wheeler was kind enough to send me a link to a piece called When Novelists Sober Up by Tom Shone. It's excellent except for one thing--his notion that Richard Yates was a one-book author. Many people, me included, rate his collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness as the equal of Fitzgerald or Hemingway's story collections. I see readers were quick to point this out to Shone. But it's an excellent and serious piece and makes me want to read Shone's own novel about drying out.

Here are some excerpts:

"In America William Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald were the Paris and Britney of their day, caught in the funhouse mirror of fame, their careers a vivid tabloid mash-up of hospitalisations and electroshock therapies. “When I read Faulkner I can tell when he gets tired and does it on corn just as I used to be able to tell when Scott would hit it beginning with ‘Tender is the Night’,” said Hemingway, playing the Amy Winehouse role of denier-in-chief. He kept gloating track of his friends’ decline, all the while nervously checking out books on liver damage from the library; by the end, said George Plimpton, Hemingway’s liver protruded from his belly “like a long fat leech”.

"In fact none of these authors would write much that was any good beyond the age of 40, Faulkner’s prose seizing up with sclerosis, Hemingway sinking into unbudgeable mawkishness. When Fitzgerald went public about his creative decline in Esquire, in a piece entitled “The Crack Up”—a prototype for all the misery memoirs we have today—Hemingway was disgusted, inviting him to cast his “balls into the sea—if you have any balls left”.


“AA can only help weak people because their ego is strengthened by the group,” said Fitzgerald. “I was never a joiner.” Certainly, if what you’re used to is rolling champagne bottles down Fifth Avenue beneath the light of a wanton moon or getting into the kind of barfights that make a man feel alive, truly alive, the basic facts of recovered life—the endless meetings, the rote ingestion of the sort of clich├ęs the writer has spent his entire life avoiding—are below prosaic. Richard Yates professed to find AA meetings impossibly maudlin: “Is just functioning living at all?” he moped, claiming he could not write a single sentence sober. His fall was even more vertiginous, and emblematic of the 1950s; like Kerouac, he was to write one masterpiece (“Revolutionary Road"), then nothing. "

For the rest go here:


Todd Mason said...

Yes, but did any of the writers involved choose to succumb to the Writer's Disease with the Presidential Choice of Bud Lite? (The Professor has apparently opted for Red Stripe, the Cop for Blue Moon. NPR was moved to note that Boston's own Sam Adams was thus snubbed.) (Obama could've at least opted for the sensible and nearly local option of National Bohemian, Baltimore's [and perhaps the nation's] best cheap beer.)

pattinase (abbott) said...

I would also vote for THE EASTER PARADE. His collected stories, published a few years ago, stacks up well against any similar collection.
His bio is one of the saddest I've ever read although Cheever's just out is close.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for running this. Shone's piece is about the anguish of fine novelists who watched their talents and abilities erode or collapse. It is about the prison that they had entered and could not escape, and about the excuses and malice that arose in them even as they drank. The article is really about the sadness and desperation of boozy writers and the wasting of rich talent.


Ed Gorman said...

You're right, Patti. The Easter Parade is a beautiful wan novel.

Charlieopera said...

Makes me wanna smack this dude for saying Revolutionary Road and then "nothing" ...

I first read Yates a little over a year ago and couldn't put him down. I've read everything by him twice now. Easter Parade is a wonderful novel ... so is Young Hearts Crying, Cold Spring Harbor and the short story collection.

Yates is up there with Malamud for me ... and I agree his work is every bit as good (if not better) than Hemingway on several levels.

Revolutionary Road and then "nothing" ... what a jerk.

Charlieopera said...

I read that bio (Blake Bailey), too ... yes, very sad.

Then I learned my mentor (English teacher in North Dakota--Dave Gresham) attended the Iowa workshop when Yates was teaching there with Vonnegut and he said the guy was brilliant and more than kind--very decent. With all his troubles while at Iowa, Yates always went the extra yard for his students.

Boy, this got me going ...

Max Allan Collins said...

As Ed already knows, Yates was my mentor at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop. My novel NO CURE FOR DEATH was written for his class, and is dedicated to him. He actually was quite prolific in his later years and wrote a number of excellent novels. And, as Ed said, the short stories are among the best of his generation.

If he was a "one book" author it is only in that his first book was a masterpiece, and that all of his book were essentially the same book (but the same can be said of Raymond Chandler and so many others).

He got me my first agent and without him I may not have had a career.

Charlieopera said...

Max, did you know a guy named Dave Gresham?