Bleak. That’s always been the rap against American novelist Richard Yates. Though he has been celebrated as a writer’s writer and a consummate craftsman since his death in 1992, even his admirers found his work depressing. Fellow novelist Carolyn See explained it in 1981: “He’s not going to get the recognition he truly deserves because to read Yates is as painful as getting all your teeth filed down to the gum with no anesthetic.” Joyce Carol Oates agreed, writing in the Nation, “A sad, gray, deathly world dreams without substance aging without maturity; this is Yates’ world, and it is a disturbing one.”
In December, part of Yates’ disturbing world found its way to the big screen, with the release of a film version of his first novel, Revolutionary Road, pairing Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in their first cinematic get-together since Titanic. The novel chronicles the painful disintegration of the marriage of Frank and April Wheeler, a seemingly model couple in vapid 1950s suburbia. The film, which faithfully captures that pain, promptly sank at the box office grossing just $21 million so far despite the fact that Winslet won a Golden Globe as Best Actress for her tortured role.
But the novel has caught fire. More than a million paperback copies of Revolutionary Road, which made little commercial ripple when it came out in 1961 , are now in print, and the Vintage paperback has been on the New York Times best seller list for 11 weeks.
Yates’ daughter Monica, 51, who lives near Flint, Michigan, is understandably happy with the turn of events. “A 48-year-old novel, having a life, which it never had in the first place!” she says enthusiastically. “It’s excellent.” She’s not really surprised that the book has found an audience, though. “I never doubted, and I don’t even think he really doubted.” But, she adds, “He would have liked to have it before he died.”
No doubt. Yates’ life was as sad as his writing. When he was working on Revolutionary Road from 1956-1960, his marriage was falling apart and he was sinking into hardcore alcoholism. A four-pack-a-day smoker with emphysema, he devoted himself to his craft. “Yates’ work was infinitely more important to him than anything in his life,” says his biographer, Blake Bailey, whose 2004 book, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, opened a window on the novelist’s anguish. “He lived in these squalid apartments, with cockroaches squashed all around his desk chair and curtains grey with nicotine and what not. And people would think, oh, my God how can he live like that But the fact was, for Yates, if the work was going well, then he couldn’t have cared less what sort of apartment he was living in.”
So now the Yates oeuvre is in popular demand. Blake, his biographer, notes that an Everyman’s Library edition of the author’s best work has just been published. “There’s an introduction by Richard Price, who was a student of Yates,” says Blake. “Price says something like, because Yates had such integrity, and was so self-effacing, that he’d be pissed off by this acclaim.” He laughs. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing is more absurd. Yates longed to have more readers, and he knew that he deserved to have more readers.” And now he does.
See the 100 best movies of all time.
See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.