by Monica Shapiro written for richardyates.org
My sister Sharon and I went to the movie set this summer. There in all their Yatesian glory, were Frank and April not understanding each other, understanding each other too well. DiCaprio and Winslet were perfect. Mendes seems to be succeeding in bringing the book to life in this further medium â€” non-readers will be able to see the Wheelers, and Howard Givings, and Mrs. Givings, and to contemplate life on Yatesian terms. Brilliant casting, a screenplay that seems to have left well enough alone, and a director who seems to get it, the humor as well as the tragedy.
It is impossible for me to imagine only knowing the film version of a book, and I can’t help hoping everybody wants the experience to be available both ways; but how miraculous is it, that an artist’s great lifelong desire should be granted; that people should listen to him, and continue to know the people he gave voice to, forever. That is what Hollywood can do for literature.
For all his dismal takes on things, Richard Yates lived on hope. On his best days, he was writing forward to the world. People would hear what he had to say, because he was saying it well and speaking from his open heart. He knew that unglamorous honesty would always interest some in every generation. The present didn’t matter.
And to that, Dad’s reaction would have been: “That’s crazy man’s talk. Mental wards are full of guys â€˜writing forward to the world'”
Yeah yeah. Well then how about this? There was nothing so magical to him as getting it right, putting it exactly. He lived for it. And he had the talent and the strength of mind to achieve it, and to delight in the achievement whenever it occurred. Even there amongst the cockroaches and the cigarette grit, sleeping on dirty sheets, he could experience that, and savor it, and he did.
A neighbor of mine read Revolutionary Road recently. “Did you like it?” I asked.
“I did, I did,” she said consolingly. “They certainly were a dysfunctional group of people.”
Dad in heaven, gnashing his teeth: “Oh for Christ’s sake.”
“They never had any happy warm times together.”
I wish I’d stuck up for him, and us, all the dysfunctional people Dad wrote about: “Hey! Those drunken conversations were good! They had some laughs! Howard Givings was a real blast, that first time they met.”
Of course, he once told me drinking was his only pleasure.
“You need to find some other pleasure.”
“Like what? Nature? Exercise?”
“Like waking up without a hangover. Feeling healthy.”
“Health’s out. Lungs are shot.”
Women were mostly out, too, although he kept a light on there and never stopped looking and appreciating, long after actual love affairs were a thing of the past. That’s what those grad students in Alabama didn’t get. Sure he was condescending towards us females, but he was gallant and kindly about it. Girls and women as charming and exasperating creatures, all their permutations, interested him the way books, and ideas and stereotypes did, and old songs and remarkable conversations and funny intelligent men, bright and tragic moments all along the way to the awful end. He was never bored, nor did he understand the meaning of the word “vacation”. “What would I do on a vacation? Not write? How would that be fun?”
I’m glad he was able to get so much of his wit and eye for humanity into those entertaining books. I’m glad they’re out there, noticing the things we all notice and often wish we didn’t, making us think about what it means to be alive and up against our limitations, even as we’re simply turning the pages to find out what happened next. I’m excited to see how far this movie can succeed in extending his reach, and whether, given every chance, his work will appeal to the wider world the way he always believed it could. Here’s hoping.