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Raise A Glass For Richard Yates

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Raise A Glass For Richard Yates

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Raise A Glass For Richard Yates

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

SIEGEL: This week, the movie "Revolutionary Road" opens in theaters. It's the story of a young couple struggling with 1950s suburban life. The movie is based on the novel by the same name by Richard Yates. While writing "Revolutionary Road," Yates became acquainted with a young writer, our own Alan Cheuse, and Alan has this remembrance of writer Richard Yates.

ALAN CHEUSE: I was a kid when I met him, a newly graduated 21-year-old wannabe writer, still living at home while I worked as a toll-taker on the New Jersey Turnpike, and making occasional forays into New York City. Richard Yates was a veteran, who served in the infantry at the end of the war in Europe and returned to the U.S. to work in a variety of business-writing jobs while composing his first novel, the book called "Revolutionary Road." He never went to college, but he was a smart man, who enjoyed talking with kids like me, kids who thought reading and writing was the same as eating and breathing.

He also enjoyed drinking with us. We had met at a party in Greenwich Village. With a grin on his long face and a bright light in his large, soulful eyes, Dick invited me in his wonderfully booming voice to come and raise a glass with him sometime. That's how he put it: Raise a glass. The first time I climbed down the cement steps to his basement apartment in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, I had no idea what I was stepping down to. He greeted me at the door, already a little sloshed. I had no idea at the time that this was his daily condition. I had led a sheltered life. He poured me a large glass of bourbon, and we raised our glasses. It was clear after a few more, that he was a lonely soul, a man who really only felt comfortable when he was in the company of someone nearly as drunk as he was.

In our inebriated night, we talked about the state of the world, and about reading novels, and writing novels. His first book, which was almost ready to appear. Being the idiot that I was, I was already trying to write one, without much success. After a while, we decided we were hungry and staggered across Sixth Avenue onto Minetta Lane, to one of his favorite restaurants. We ordered steak and drank and drank and drank some more. Dick seemed to become steadier in his carriage, the more he drank, while yours truly faded into red-faced delusion and wonder.

That was the drill whenever I came by. Talk, drink, drink, eat and drink. When "Revolutionary Road" was published, all of that became more intense and deservedly so. It's a quiet masterwork. Dick's life from that point on had its ups and downs, and eventually more downs. He published more books, but never as many as he had hoped he would. And the critics never let him forget just how good his first book was, even as they picked away at the newer ones. But Dick, whom I saw from time to time, went lunging through life, traveling out to Hollywood to write a never-produced screenplay. Hollywood, as he described it to me afterward, included barrels of money, rivers of alcohol, a new car wrecked on the beach, a woman in the hospital, a house on fire.

It wasn't all that long after that he was dead. Now the movie made from "Revolutionary Road" is opening everywhere. And it makes me think, with a shiver in the chest and a deep hot coal of recollection, what a festival Dick would have made of this wonderful occasion, so late in coming: His book, his masterly American triumph, coming out as a movie. Hey, Alan, he'd say, come on over, and we'll raise a glass. We'd raise a glass - oh, yes, we would. We'd raise a glass.

SIEGEL: Alan Cheuse did finally complete his first novel. His latest is "To Catch The Lightning."

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