The Lost World of Richard
Since his death in 1992, all nine of Richard Yatess titles have quietly dropped off the shelves. Once the most vaunted of authorspraised by Styron and Vonnegut and Robert Stone as the voice of a generationhe seems now to belong to that august yet sad category, the writers writer. Andre Dubus, who was his student at Iowa, revered him, as does Tobias Wolff, and the jackets of Yatess books are adorned with quotes by the likes of Tennessee Williams and Dorothy Parker, Ann Beattie and Gina Berriault. When authors talk his name pops up as the American writer we wish more people would read, just as Cormac McCarthys used to. In the acknowledgments section of his novellas, Women With Men, Richard Ford makes it plain: "I wish to record my debt of gratitude to the stories and novels of Richard Yates, a writer too little appreciated."
And yet, Yates doesnt fit the mold of a writers writer. Hes not a linguistic acrobat like Nabokov or a highflying fabulist like Steven Millhauser, not a uniquely intellectual or obsessive writer the way we think of William Gaddis or Harold Brodkey. In the era that saw Pynchon, DeLillo and Rushdie make their names (before storming the bestseller lists), he wrote about the mundane sadness of domestic life in language that rarely if ever draws attention to itself. Theres nothing fussy or pretentious about his style. If anything, his work could be called simple or traditional, conventional, free of the metafictionalists or even the modernists tricks. The only writers writer he might be compared to would be Chekhov, or perhaps Fitzgerald, though without Fitzgeralds poetic flair.
The surface of his prose is so clear, in fact, and the people and events he writes about so average and identifiable, so much like the world we know, that it seems his books would merit a larger general audience than those of his more difficult literary peers. But that has not been the case.
It may be that writers prize Yates because readers havent. In a business that often champions shoddy and false work over true and beautiful accomplishments, his fate confirms our worst fears and prods us to demand justice. Hes the most readable and accessible of literary writers, a master of pacing, moving time effortlessly, and as a serious author he seemed to command respect from the very beginning. His first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), was an instant success, a finalist for the National Book Award alongside Catch-22 and The Moviegoer, and equally deserving. As a chronicler of mainstream American life from the 1930s to the late 60s, hes matched only by John Cheever. Across his career he was consistently well- reviewed in all the major places, and four of his novels were selections of the Book-of-the-Month club, yet he never sold more than 12,000 copies of any one book in hardback.
If his work was neglected during his lifetime, after his death it has practically disappeared. Of the tens of thousands of titles crammed into the superstores, not one is his. Occasionally youll find trade paperbacks from the 80s Delta or Vintage Contemporary reprints in used stores, maybe a Book Club copy of The Easter Parade or a ragged first of A Good School, but its rare to come across his middle books, A Special Providence or Disturbing the Peace.
To write so well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy. I always think that if I write well enough, the people in my booksthe world of those bookswill somehow survive. In time the shoddy and trendy work will fall away and the good books will rise to the top. Its not reputation that matters, since reputations are regularly pumped up by self-serving agents and publicists and booksellers, by the star machinery of Random House and the New Yorker; what matters is what the author has achieved in the work, on the page. Once its between covers, they cant take it away from you; they have to acknowledge its worth. As a writer, I have to believe that.
This is the mystery of Richard Yates: how did a writer so well-respectedeven lovedby his peers, a writer capable of moving his readers so deeply, fall for all intents out of print, and so quickly? How is it possible that an author whose work defined the lostness of the Age of Anxiety as deftly as Fitzgeralds did that of the Jazz Age, an author who influenced American literary icons like Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus, among others, an author so forthright and plainspoken in his prose and choice of characters, can now be found only by special order or in the dusty, floor-level end of the fiction section in secondhand stores? And how come no one knows this? How come no one does anything about it?
Eventually the books will make it back in print, just as Faulkners and Fitzgeralds did, and Yates will take his place in the American canon. How this will come about its impossible to say. Writers and editors are keenly aware of his situation, so perhaps his Malcolm Cowley is just moving up through the ranks at Norton or Doubleday. Or maybe, like Charles Bukowski bringing his favorite John Fante back onto the shelves, some major writer will convince his editor to revive Yates. Regardless, the work is there, waiting for its readers. And not only the work, but the life of the author, a vital selling point for American literary lions.
In 1961 Seymour Lawrence at AtlanticLittle, Brown published Yatess first novel, Revolutionary Road. The book details the slow erosion of the marriage and the dreams of Frank and April Wheeler, a suburban couple who believe themselves to be better than their banal surroundings. Frank is working at a dull office job in the city but hopes to go to Europe and becomepossiblya writer. Franks great ambition is to be "first-rate," and he continually reminds himself that April is "a first-rate girl" to bolster his self-confidence. Yates says of Frank that "he hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit," and while he hadnt actually accomplished anything, that "in avoiding specific goals he had avoided specific limitations."
Frank has that very American belief in the possible and in his own untapped potential, and April is all too aware of his pretensions. She tries to go along with him in seeing themselves as somehow special or better than their neighbors the Campbells, but its difficult for her. She knows him too well.
The novels opening scenes show April starring in a local production of "The Petrified Forest." She plays Gabrielle (Bette Davis in the film version), a waitress at a cafe in the middle of the desert, an amateur artist who moons over Villon and daydreams of going to Paris. Gabrielle is both a romantic and a sentimental fool, and her falling for the big talk of Leslie Howards sham romantic puts him in the position of taking a bullet from Bogies real villain, Duke Mantee.
The suburban production is a train wreck, and the hopes of the audienceFrank among themare dashed and ground into powder. Yates renders these scenes moment by moment, catching every slip-up, every missed cue and botched line of dialogue. April, whose beauty and poise we hope will be the shows saving grace, soon falls apart on stage; the sequence is excruciating in its humiliation. Yates crushes not only Franks and Aprils hopes, but the readers, making us suffer along with his characters:
And this is only the first act. Another author might cut away, but Yates keeps us therestuck like Frankwatching as April and the cast soldier through the rest of the play. Yates makes the reader squirm with embarrassment for his characters. Hope has been replaced by acid reality, and theres more of it to come; it cant be stopped, well simply have to endure it. Because weve all been in these situations, we know the only thing April wants is for it to end. Yetlike shame, like lifeit refuses to.
The play serves as a metaphor for the Wheelers marriage as well. On his way to the dressing room, Frank reflects on his own high hopes:
Their meeting in the dressing room is awkward and prolonged. Afterward, driving home, Frank tries to tell her it doesnt matter by ridiculing the other members of the cast, the audience, the entire suburban society of America, but April doesnt want to hear it. They fight and end up screaming at each other by the dark roadside, the lights of their neighbors cars strobing over them. As in Fitzgerald, the dream has soured, given way to disappointment.
Throughout Revolutionary Road, Frank and April are constantly watching themselves, gauging their lives against ideals from the movies or the newspapers. And how do other people see them? Are they beautiful and handsome enough? Do they have the right friends? Theres a self-consciousness, an anxiety of not being quite right or knowing precisely how to behave that undermines all their scoffing at conformity. Its as if theyre playing at their roles of man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father, terrified theyll blow their lines. They work around the house and tend to their children, seething with dissatisfaction yet hopeful that "The gathering disorder of their lives might still be sorted out and made to fit these rooms." Their realization, as the months pass, of the widening gap between their idea of themselves as special people and the reality of being like everyone else makes them take drastic steps, with tragic results.
Revolutionary Road has little good to say about American institutions, a common enough sentiment for the time. More interesting are its two heroes. In the beginning Frank and April Wheeler gain our sympathy, since we all know how stultifyingly dull the suburbs are, how false and vapid the consumer culture, how grindingly dumb the office jobs. And we can all identify with the terrors of self-consciousness and the sorrow of things going wrong for the ones we love, the frustrations of money and the realization that were nowhere close to living our ideal lives. We all consider ourselves special, and we all hit desperate patches where we have to compromise or downgrade our larger hopes, give up our bravest expectations. Thats life. But much of what goes bad in the Wheelers lives is their own doing, a result of their selfishness, their weakness and their inability to admit the truth. If not passive characters, theyre certainly not strong ones, neither heroes nor anti-heroes. In a sense, theyre unremarkable, except that Yates has made us understand their desires (which we share to some extent) and what forces inside and outside of them have prevented them from fulfilling these dreams. While Frank and April show great disdain for the venal ideals of the culture, at heart they aspire to the same bland successes. Their failure is their own fault, Yates seems to sayas if blaming them for a spiritual lack of imagination or absence of self-worthyet he has chosen them to write about and asks us to seriously contemplate their inner lives, which we do.
The reader recoils even before these scenes begin, like horror movie viewers realizing the victim is going to open the wrong door. In fact, part of the dramaas in Dostoevskyis anticipating just how terrible the humiliation will be, and how (or if) the characters will survive it.
Not that Yates or his people are ever hopeless. No, unfortunately the opposite is true. Throughout Revolutionary Road, his yearning for a better life is so strong that Frank Wheeler regularly deludes himself into believing that someday, through some unforeseen mechanism, he might really achieve his dreams and become this other, more accomplished person. He has such stock in this fantasy of himself (and the world) that nothing short of Aprils death will rid him of his illusions.
The book is painful and sad, and in the end the reader is left with nothing of comfort. The final scene, in which a husband turns off his hearing aid so he wont have to listen to his wife prattling on about how she knew the Wheelers were bad from the very beginning, highlights the lack of communication (let alone communion) between people and how isolated we are from each other. Its a perfect and powerful ending, one echoed, in gesture at least, by both John Gardner in his first novel The Resurrection and Tobias Wolff in the title story of In the Garden of the North American Martyrs. Yates himself said in a later interview: "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy."
What is distinctive about Yates in Revolutionary Roadand throughout his workis not merely the bleakness of his vision, but how that vision adheres not to war or some other horror but to the aspirations of everyday Americans. We share the dreams and fears of his peoplelove and success balanced by loneliness and failureand more often than not, life, as defined by the shining paradigms of advertising and popular song, is less than kind to us. Yates proves this with absolutely plausible drama, then demands that his charactersand we, as readers, perhaps the country as a wholeadmit the simple, painful truth.
Its his insistence on the blunt reality of failure that drew me to Yates. In my world at the time (and even now), failure was much more common than success, endurance the best that could be hoped for. Family and love were hard and often impossible. In the world I knew, no one was saved by luck or bailed out by coincidence; no understanding lovers or friends or parents or children made the unbearable suddenly pleasant. Fortunes didnt change, they just followed a track into a dead end and left you there. To find a writer who understood that and didnt gussy it up with tough-guy irony or drown it in sentimental tears was a revelation. Yateseven in the mid-80s, when I first read Revolutionary Roadseemed to me a refreshing change from the false, cloying fiction that passed for realism. He still does.
Contemporary reaction to Revolutionary Road was overwhelmingly positiveraves for Yatess eye and ear. The few qualms reviewers had reveal more about the uniqueness of Yatess work than the praise. Some wondered how an author could seem to be sympathetic to his characters at first and then sentence them to such torments, and whether this wasnt unintentional or unfair, some sort of artistic flaw. Others questioned his use of weak characters to test larger philosophical and social issues, implying that the books criticism of the culture was dependent on how heroic Frank and April are (conveniently ignoring the fact that most Americansand decidedly most of the books readersare probably closer to Frank and April than to any typical fictional hero). But overall the reception was gushy. America had a new major writer.
AtlanticLittle, Brown capitalized on the critical success of Revolutionary Road by collecting Yatess stories a year later. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness shows a range of characters and settings far beyond Frank and April Wheeler and Revolutionary Road, though, like them, most of his people here are young and insecure and coming to grips with their less-than-ideal lives. The worn-down characters, plain dialogue, and flattened narration in "The Best of Everything" could be from a Raymond Carver story, as could the two couples driving out to the Army TB ward on Long Island in "No Pain Whatsoever." This is the hard-luck world of Carver, but without his goofy grim humor or his later hope, and sans the stylization of his skeletal, early, Gordon Lish-edited voice. Its a world purposefully not quirky or picturesque, just plain and sad and inescapable.
If middle class life seemed empty in Revolutionary Road, here its both spiritually vacant and economically precarious. The characters in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness are young men looking back at their lives from a discouraging present. The promises America has made them are hollow, the salvation of love and family, faith and community, somehow out of reach, not a possibility. They hate their work, they drink too much, and they can recall a timemaybe just one time, like "The B.A.R. Man"when they nearly lived up to their ideals, if only for a moment.
IN THE LAST and newest story in the collection, "Builders" (1961), Yates uncharacteristically narrates through a first person who could be seen as his alter-ego, a fledgling writer named Robert Prentice who takes on a ghostwriting job for a New York cabbie. Prentice casts himself as Hemingway (and later Fitzgerald), but is struggling to make ends meet. The cabbie, Bernie, contracts him to write true heartwarming stories from life. Prentice tries to do this but feels he is being false to his own view of life by manipulating pat happy endings. Talking about the process of writing, the two resort to a metaphor; they speak of how composing stories is like building houses, how it has to be done with care and precision. In response to one story he feels is too harsh, Bernie says Prentice forgot to put in windows so the light could shine through.
Their paths diverge, but Prentice remembers Bernie and his metaphor. In the end, Prentice has tried to write his great tragic novel and failed. His marriage has foundered as well. The close of the story is introspectivea true rarity for a Yates character, and maybe the effect of using the first person.
Palpable throughout the collection, here Yatess pity for his characters, like Bob Prentices, is explicit. While the stories are tough, theyre not absolutely merciless, and the relationships between the author and his characters, the characters and the reader, and the reader and the author are agreeable, not at all strained. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness could even be called a gentle book, for all its disappointments.
Again, the reviews were uniformly excellent. Critics puzzled by the Wheelers knotty personalities knew where to stand, and technicallyline by lineYates was faultless. The collection solidified his reputation and made readers eager to see what he would do next.
Yates and Sam Lawrence didnt hurry another book into print. Buoyed by his new celebrity, and drinking now that he was alone, he accepted John Frankenheimers offer to write a screenplay of William Styrons Lie Down in Darkness and moved to Hollywood, following unwisely in the footsteps of his idol Fitzgerald. After completing the script (it was never shot), in 1963 he made an even stranger leap, signing on with the Kennedy administration to write speeches for then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After JFKs assassination, Yates took a teaching job at the University of Iowa, finding time to co-author the script of the World War II movie The Bridge at Remagen, released in 1969.
Throughout the decade, his health wasnt good. He was gaunt, and because of the bout with TB he had difficulty breathing. He also smoked like a stove, drank hard and steadily, and frequently didnt eat. Apparently he was hospitalized during this period for a nervous breakdownperhaps several times, according to a comment made in a later interview: "Ive been in and out of bughouses, yes."
The visibility of Revolutionary Road and Yatess subsequent silence naturally had people wondering if he was a one-hit wonder, if hed let his success intimidate him. "I dont know what happened," he said in a 1992 interview with Scott Bradfield. "It was the second novel thing, I guess. That book took seven years, and it had to be torn out of me."
KNOPF FINALLY PUBLISHED A Special Providence in October 1969. The books epigraph comes from Auden, "We are lived by powers we pretend to understand," and prepares us for another pair of Yatess clueless, deluded heroesRobert Prentice, the narrator of "Builders," and his sculptress mother, Alice. While Revolutionary Road was set in the near-past of 1955, A Special Providence takes place in 1944, giving it initially, at least, the nostalgic feel of a period piece. But at heart Yates is the least nostalgic of writers, and the relationship between Robert Prentice and his mother is as full of bitterness and misgiving as that of Frank and April Wheeler. The intimate first person of "Builders" is gone, replaced by a distant third person.
The Prentices are a blueprint for the families in Yatess later work, and one which could be construed as autobiographical: a flighty, divorced mother with artistic leanings, no common sense, and a drinking problem, and an insecure boy who can see through her pretensions but is powerless to change the situation. Here Robert Prentice has escaped to the Army and to Europe where he can make a fresh start and put his inept stabs at normality behind him. In short, he hopes to become a man, if not a hero.
The title of the novel is ironic. Like the Wheelers, both Robert Prentice and his mother consider themselves special. Alice is always talking about how her work will suddenly be recognized and theyll want for nothing. Bob "saw himself as the hero of some inspiring movie.... The trouble was that his mother refused to play her role." Hes so sick of her drinking and her fecklessness that he would deny her her dreams. He imagines a conversation in which he straightens her out once and for all. When his mother cries, "Why cant I have my illusions?," Bob says, "Because theyre lies." And yet throughout his tour of duty, Bob imagines himself in a war movie. Hes just as starry-eyed as she is.
As in much of Yatess writing, the split between expectations and reality fuels the drama of A Special Providence. The Army provides a stage for Bob Prentice to try to live up to his own heroic view of himself. Again and again he failsat friendship, in combat, at sex. He fails even at knowing when to quit.
The writing in A Special Providence is of a piece with the narration in Revolutionary Road. Yates uses plain language and follows a conventional chronological scheme. The prose is clearmuch of the war writing flinty and reminiscent of Hemingways best work in A Farewell to Armsand the scene-setting is swift, with brief bursts of summary narration moving the reader along. Both Bob and Alice Prentice are deep and credible characters, despite their weaknesses. All in all, a success, except that in the past few years American writing, like the rest of the culture, had changed drastically. The metafictionalists were in, as were fantasy and sci-fi, and mad satire. Donald Barthelmes surrealistic fictions ran nearly monthly in the New Yorker. Compared to the experimentalists, Yatess traditional approach seemed a throwback, easily ignored.
Yates made no apologies for sticking by his guns:
Predictably, the critics were not as kind to A Special Providence as they had been to the earlier books, and it hardly sold at all, partly, perhaps, because in the political climate of 1969 readers didnt know what to make of Bob Prentice, whose values as a young soldier seemed old-fashioned, completely out of step with the times. The setting of World War II itself was not a problem, but unlike Vonneguts Slaughterhouse-Five or Hellers Catch-22 (then enjoying a resurgence), A Special Providence didnt speak to current issues. Joyce Carol Oates in the Nation praised the bookand all of Yatess workcalling his characters "invisible people, not quite there, unable to assert themselves or to guide their own destinies":
But while A Special Providence extended and deepened Yatess world, it wasnt a literary sensation. It won no prizes, and commercially it was an utter failure. In the turbulence of 1969 it made no waves. It could not justifiably be called unsparing or searing or prophetic, as Revolutionary Road had been. It spoke for no generationor perhaps for one that had long since been eclipsed. After waiting eight years for a second novel, critics were disappointed.
Yates himself must have been discouraged with the books reception. Unable to support himself by his books, he continued to teach and write through the early 70s, still plagued by drinking and depression. He had remarried in 1968, and in 1974 he divorced again, his second wife retaining custody of their daughter.
In 1975, six years after A Special Providence, Sam Lawrence, now with his own imprint at Delacorte, published Yatess third novel, Disturbing the Peace. The wait, though shorter this time, was distinctly not worth it. John Wilder, the hero of the novel, suffers from some unspecified mental illness as well as from alcoholism and a needy, raging ego. The storyline is skimpy, as are the emotions inspired in the reader, probably because Yates focuses not on a close relationship between people trapped and dependent on one another, but on a man wholly alone, willfully beyond the bonds of love and family.
A victim of his illness, Wilder is hopelessly lost and temperamentally incapable of doing anything to save himself, though he knows better. As Gene Lyons said in his New York Times review: "The author himself need not believe that his characters can alter their fate, but it helps if they do."
The difficulty of where the authors and readers sympathy and empathy lies never comes into play here. Whether Yates has affection or scorn for Wilder is moot because from the beginning the reader sees his desires not as personal and common (as with Frank Wheeler and Bob and Alice Prentice) but as animal and overbearing. His self-pity and self-regard are monstrous, his judgment unsound.
One section, however, sheds some light on Yatess propensity for the tragic. Wilder, hearing of JFKs death, reacts strangely:
Yatess people all wish to possess the Hollywood qualities Wilder attributes to Kennedy, while Oswald, being acquainted with the reality of despair, denies America that false possibility, like Bob Prentice wanting to sweep away his mothers illusions, or Yates dashing his own characters hopes. This paradox of wanting to be on the inside, to be someone special, and then railing against the lucky ones who are chosen applies to nearly all of his main characters. Ultimately they vent their bitterness, and cruelly, on the closest target, often someone who is still hopeful (if deluded). Its as if its the duty of those who know the pain of failure, of being unloved almost as a protestto initiate those who havent discovered it yet, or to remind those who have but choose to ignore it, like Alice Prentice.
Disturbing the Peace is Richard Yatess only bad book, but it came at a time when critics were looking for a comeback. A Special Providence, while well-done, had been anachronistic. It had been fourteen years since Revolutionary Road, and the author had shown no further signs of greatness. As slowly as he composed, it might be five or ten years before another Yates novelif, indeed, there was one left in him. Disturbing the Peace confirmed for some that Yates was finished, that, like Fitzgerald and so many others, hed squandered his talent, drank it away.
The following September, Sam Lawrence and Yates stunned everyone by bringing out The Easter Parade. The novel opens with the simplicity of a folktale: "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents divorce." In his lucid, measured prose Yatess patient third person narrator follows Emily Grimes from 1930 up to the mid-70s as she and her sister Sarah and their mother Pookie try to find love and to bear each other.
Pookie is similar to Alice Prentice, moving easily from pleasant self-delusion to screechy denial, and Emily, like Bob Prentice, comes to dread and despise every word that comes from her mouth. Like Bob and Mr. Givings, who turns his hearing aid off at the end of Revolutionary Road, she just wishes her mother would shut up. Pookie drinks and rarely works, so the family is short of money; still she believes theyre special, and that her two girls will turn out to be something.
They dont. As the opening line promises, their lives are unhappy, their promise chronically unfulfilled. Love turns out to be harder than it is in the movies. Emily, who has romantic dreams and matching anxieties, gives her virginity to a soldier in a squalid, anonymous coupling in Central Park. Sarah, the prettier of the two, marries, but her husband beats her. Emily loves a series of weak men who treat her poorly and winds up alone and bitter, a drinker like her mother.
Near the end of the book, dressing for Sarahs funeral, Emily remembers her sister playing with dolls and singing "Welcome, Sweet Springtime" and "Look for the Silver Lining." In Yatess hands, the distance between these sentimental songs and the reality of Sarahs life becomes more than just easy or laughable irony but unutterably sadas is much of the book. His flat, understated style gives the passage of the Grimes sisters lives a poignance even as, scene by scene, it strips the bewildered Emily of her dreams. The effect is at once cruel and sweet, heartbreaking and brutal.
FOR A RELATIVELY SHORT NOVEL (229 pages), The Easter Parade has an astonishing sweep and weight, the product of another Yates strength, his mastery of summary narration. Technically the book is probably his sharpest, but its power comes from Yatess choice of Emily Grimes as its central consciousness. Like Frank and April Wheeler and Bob Prentice (and unlike John Wilder), Emily is profoundly insecure and profoundly hopeful. Shes an innocent, a weakling, trusting the world to treat her gently. It does not, and with each humiliation we feel more for her. Like those earlier characters, and unlike the reader, she cant see the pattern of her mistakes and ends up making them over and over again, never coming closer to happiness but never truly giving up on the possibility. Ultimately her fate is one we all fear: "There were worse things in the world than being alone. She told herself that every day." And still she has "a sense of herself as someone important, someone to be reckoned with, someone to love," even if that belief wavers and occasionally disappears. She does not endure, and she certainly does not prevail, but in her defeat she too is humantoo human, reallyand deserving of our empathy. In the words of John Gardner, as a character shes "worthy of and capable of love," though never really given the chance to prove it. Thats why we follow her and care for her.
The Easter Parade signaled the resurgence of Richard Yates. A year after the career-ending Disturbing the Peace, critics hailed him as an American master. They spoke now of his body of work and raved over the effortless elegance of his prose and the depth of his tragic vision.
Two years later, in 1978, Yates surprised the literary world again when Delacorte published A Good School, his third novel in four years. Suddenly hed become not only exacting but prolific. His life had become regimented. Hed moved to an apartment in Boston and quit drinking the hard stuff. Sam Lawrence had persuaded Delacorte to pay Yates in advance for his books and then had put him on what amounted to a monthly salary. If he was going to run short of money, he could pick up part-time teaching gigs to fill the gaps. Under these new living conditions, Yates thrived.
A Good School is a short ensemble novel, charting the last days of a second-rate boarding school, Dorset Academy, and set during the same year as Yatess own graduation from the Avon School, 1944. The epigraph is from the authors favorite writer, Fitzgerald, his famous "Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and Ill tell you a story." The narration opens with a foreword in the first person as an unnamed man casts back to that time and tells us about his difficult love for his family. Like Yatess parents, the narrators are divorced, the father a salesman for GEs Mazda Lamp division, the mother a frustrated sculptress. The father even shares Yatess fathers first name, Vincent.
The opening has the relaxed and intimate feel of a memoir, and it debuted that June as "an autobiographical foreword" in the New York Times Book Review. The sentiments are warmer than were familiar with in Yatespossibly due to the natural openness of the first person, and also the effect of looking back:
This complex, generous voice is only the second first person Richard Yates used in his fiction, the first being the voice of his alter-ego Robert Prentice in "Builders." Here again, Yates gives us a writer looking back wistfully at his own life. His voice here is so inviting in his patience and forthrightness, his willingness to both expose his deepest pain and forgive everyone (even himself) for their shortcomings in love, that naturally other writers have tried to emulate itRichard Ford most notably in his story "Communist" and myself in my first novel Snow Angels.
The voice only appears momentarily. When Yates drops back into his usual detached third person for Chapter One of A Good School, the shift is bracing and strange. Only late in the novel do we suspect, correctly, that the narrator of the foreword is the hapless William Grove, in the beginning a victim of the worst schoolboy humiliations, and painfully self-conscious, but gradually across the novel learning to respect his own abilities.
Dorset Academy is second-rate and in the red, and all its quaint Cotswold architecture cant disguise that fact from the boys. Their anglophile education is just a thin veneer over a savage pecking order based on money, looks, and athletic skill. The shining ideals trumpeted in their brochure are a joke. Tawdry secrets abound, like the wife of a disabled teacher sleeping with the French instructor, and looming behind everything is the war, hungry for more boys.
Despite this, in A Good School the residents of Dorset Academy, like William Grove, find a way to learn their lessons on their own, and to rely on themselves. By the close of the novelthe matching half of the present day first person framethe characters actually have matured. But all of that, William Grove reminds us, is in the past, and all gone, as is his chance to thank his father and seek his love.
Bittersweet, elegiac, A Good School is Richard Yatess gentlest book, the one in which he shows the most overt love and pity for his people. The loneliness and yearning of Yatess adolescents and even his few adults comes through beautifully, and theres that same sense of innocence tested, that same compassion that kept The Easter Parade from turning savage.
By now the critics had to take Yates seriously, and following The Easter Parade, A Good School seemed slight to them, simplistic and sentimental, especially for him. They praised the first person frame but hammered his choice of material and lack of deep characterization. Not a major work, the consensus ruled. Worse, it didnt sell, relegating Yatespermanently, it seemedto the limbo of the mid-list author, well-regarded but hardly read.
In October 1981, twenty years after Revolutionary Road, Delacorte brought out Yatess second collection of stories, Liars in Love. While the work was recentsome appearing in The Atlantic and Ploughsharesall but one story is set in the 1940s, 50s and early 60s, and all of it can be read through the authors life.
The opening story, "Oh, Joseph, Im So Tired," is the gem of the collection, but the others are strong as well, and deal with typical Yates characters and situations. The title story features colloquial dialogue and deadpan stage direction that could easily be mistaken for Carvers, but is of a piece with what Yates was writing in the early 50s.
By now, the tide of American writing had turned, and the plain style and concern for unheroic characters Yates had remained true to was coming into vogue. Carvers What We Talk About When We Talk About Love had just come out in April, welcomed by a rave on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, and both the slick and the literary magazines were filled with stories of average, downtrodden Americans. Critics who knew Yatess earlier books understood that, like his student Andre Dubuss stories of the 1970s, his was seminal work. After being called old-fashioned much of his career, Yatesin retrospectwas now hailed as having been ahead of the curve.
But the new fiction only superficially resembled his. It had a thinness of characterization, leaving the storys true movement to the surface of the prose and often what remained unstated beneath it. And the new authors rarely moved time or favored omniscient narration the way Yates did. In its stylization and severity the new fiction simplified the positions of author and character, choosing as a default mode a neutral, unjudgmental stance and asking the reader to abide by the same rules; and the characters often seemed so flat and cryptic, emblematic, without desire or fear, that this tack seemed appropriate. They were rootless, aimless and clueless, either innocent or desolate and sometimes a numb combination of the two, adrift in a senseless commercial world. The reader waited to see what they would do, never being able to predict their responses, often because the characters themselves didnt knowa freedom Yatess people, so determined by their history, never have. Yatess characters move from innocence to disillusion; in the new fiction, the characters were already there, and paralyzed, unable or unwilling to move on. Part of this was generational. By the early 80s, after Vietnam and Watergate, the hope so present in Yatess young Americans was long gone, a vestige of another era.
The critical reaction to Liars in Love split between those who saw the stories as belonging to the new fiction (and dismissed them as therefore typical and unexceptional) and those who felt the depth of his characterization set them apart from and above the trend. But even these critics had to contend with exactly where Yates positioned himself with regard to his characters and how that affected the readers response. James Atlas in The Atlantic called Yates "the bleakest writer I know," adding:
But then Atlas himself tempered this:
Robert Wilson in the Washington Post weighed in, saying:
Atlas, trying to be kind, misses Yatess gist entirely. Yates does not play favorites; the world, according to his vision, grinds all his characters down alike, andas in Kafkathe more they struggle, the more painfully they fail. The worst that can be said of Yatess people is that they dont know when to give up and instead continue to humiliate themselves even as we, the reader, want them to stop. Thats what makes them so exasperating.
Wilson, on the other hand, projects his own lack of sympathy onto Yates, blaming the author because he (Wilson) is able to dismiss the death of a character who doesnt strike him as likable. His claim that the reader doesnt feel strongly about April is spurious; theres no doubt that we agonize and empathize with her. The strength of Yates is that he brings us close to her in all her hopeless hope: what Wilson really means here is that hes held back a final measure of emotion for her because with all her flaws she doesnt fit his idealized view of a saintly, more deserving heroine.
What Wilson doesnt understand is that the reason it is impossible to dismiss Yatess charactersthe reason they bother and touch us so muchis his refusal to present them as typically sympathetic and strong. Like us, theyre unheroic, rightfully ashamed of their worst selves and hoping to do better. Their failures are tragic because theyre not unexpected. Like Chekhov, Yates has even more affection for his characters because of their faults, and like Chekhov, hes willing to admit that life rarely works out the way we planned.
WITH THE BOOM in the American short story, Liars in Love did well enough, and in 1983, on the strength of Yatess now solid literary reputation, Delta, Delacortes trade paperback arm, brought out a reprint of Revolutionary Road. Yatess health was failing, but he continued to work and teach, and in 1984 published his fifth title in ten years, Young Hearts Crying.
The novel tells the story of Michael and Lucy Davenport from their courtship and marriage in the 50s through their divorce and their separate lives in the 70s. Along the way, Yates revisits familiar territory: Michael, who fought in World War II, is an aspiring poet who hates his corporate day job, and eventually the couple leaves the Village (where their dearest wish is to have artistic and interesting friends) and lands in dull suburbia, where the pressures of their unrealized ambitions and romantic yearnings drive them apart.
Like all of Yatess young people, Michael and Lucy are full of longing yet passive, almost paralyzed by their tentativeness; they dont know how to live adult lives and can only imitate the models around them. The country cottage they end up living in looks "like something drawn by a child with an uncertain sense of the way a house ought to be," and when, still doubtful, they tell the realtor they think theyd like to buy it, she says, "I love to see people who know themselves well enough to make up their minds." To the Davenports, everyone else seems so sure, so competent and accomplished, that it intimidates them. Both Michael and Lucy are plagued by a crippling self-consciousness and lack of confidence. Theyre timid and easily hurt, and when their dreams sour they leave each other and wander off in search of something else to fill this new emptiness.
As the years pass and we watch Lucy go through a number of selfish lovers and Michael repeatedly trying to bolster his self-esteem by sleeping with younger and younger women, the Davenports become pathetic and bitter, searching but never finding even a temporary peace. "Fuck art," Lucy tells Michael at the end, because it hasnt helped her transcend anything. Michael, whos been in and out of institutions and has only his poetry to hang onto, grudgingly concedes her point, adding, "Fuck psychiatry." The final words are in Michaels point of view; hes thinking of Sarah, the young woman who may or may not return to him:
The meaning here is ambiguous: it may be that Michael has reached some maturity, finally come to terms with the disappointments of life, or it may be that he has resigned himself to that aloneness. Regardless, the tone of the last sentence is restful and signals to the reader that for now at least Michael has given up the struggle. For Yates, thats a happy ending.
While some critics praised Young Hearts Crying for its art, others found Michael not merely childish and vulnerable, like so many of Yatess men, but infuriatingly weak and self-pitying. His continual pursuit of women grows stale dramatically, and Yates would have done better to pare down or even summarize a few of the later scenes. The elegance and economy that distinguish his finest work are missing here.
Still, critics elsewhere conceded that as a novelist, technically Yates had few peers and continued to be true to his own particular vision. But, as with his other books, Young Hearts Crying didnt sell, despite being a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate Selection. Though hed published eight challenging and original books to considerable praise, Esquire was right when it said, "Richard Yates is one of Americas least famous great writers."
1986s Cold Spring Harbor didnt change that. Concise, plain-spoken, and sad, it fits neatly into Yatess oeuvre. The novel shares its time frame, its characters and its method with his other work, and on the whole succeeds in delivering the world of these people. Yates avoids the repetition of Young Hearts Crying, partly by sharing the narration around; the young husband Evan Shepard, whose aimless frustration and lust is equal to Michael Davenports or John Wilders, doesnt have the time or space to become insufferable. The book is also small, running 182 pages, four more than A Good School and half the size of Young Hearts Crying.
The two New York Times reviews of Cold Spring Harbor were polar opposites and illuminate the tricky heart of Yatess fiction. Lowry Pei in the daily edition found it "difficult if not impossible to feel sympathy with the characters dreams":
In the Sunday Book Review, though, Michiko Kakutani explained the same effect a different way:
Both reviewers treat Yatess generosity and harshness as separate powers, called upon at different times, as if, like Zeus, his mood changes as the novel goes on. The converse is actually true; in tone and execution Yates is the calmest of novelists, the surface hardly marred by his intrusion. The characters hearts and desires are never explicitly judgedthey simply are. Yates, like Joyces ideal godlike yet objective narrator, sits in the clouds, paring his nails. He leaves the reader to judge. If, like Lowry Pei, the reader lacks empathy for his characters, is that the authors fault?
The danger Yates courts is combining the conflicted character with the average or unexceptional personwith a talent I can only aspire to. A sympathetic, exceptional character will always earn our interest as readers (Stephen Daedalus), as will, to a lesser extent or for a shorter time, a sympathetic but average character (say, Lily Briscoe), and even an unsympathetic character can command our attention if theyre exceptional (Richard III, Hannibal Lecter), but its rare if not unheard of to find a reader following an unsympathetic, unexceptional person. We only follow Jason Compson because of his connection to the rest of the family. With the exception of the madman John Wilder, Yatess narrating characters are never fully unsympathetic, though some of his supporting characters are. Rather than cruel, more often theyre frail. At their worst, his people are a mirror of our weaknesses: passive, uncertain, self-pitying, and foolish. To show us his vision of the worldpopulated as it is by mostly unexceptional, imperfect peopleYates takes us as close to the line as we can go (and, Lowry Pei would say, over it).
Cold Spring Harbor was received as most of Richard Yatess later books were. It earned respectful if not spectacular reviews, sold poorly, came out in trade paperback the next year and was promptly forgotten. By now, all of his titles had been reissued in Delta trade editions. They floundered on the shelves for a few years, then went out of print.
In 1989, the Vintage Contemporary series begun by Gary Fisketjon picked up Revolutionary Road, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and The Easter Parade. Yates was teaching at USC now, suffering from emphysema and living in an apartment with rented furniture, one wall adorned with portraits of his three daughters. He was still smoking, and still writing, working on a novel drawn from his experiences as a speechwriter for Bobby Kennedy, titled Uncertain Times, of which Esquire had supposedly bought two chapters. He was almost halfway through the book in 1989, and just finishing it when he died of complications following minor surgery in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in the fall of 1992.
Sam Lawrence and Kurt Vonnegut organized a memorial service in New York, Andre Dubus one in Cambridge, and Yatess friends and admirers gathered to remember him. Lawrence collected their tributes in a limited edition, Frank Conroys and Jayne Anne Phillipss among them. In the New York Times obituary, he said he was unsure if the manuscript of Uncertain Times would be published.
It wasnt. Several years later, Lawrence died, leaving Richard Yatess work without its greatest champion. Since then all of his fiction has gone out of print. Fellow writers claim this is due to the unsparing and truthful picture he painted of ordinary American life, that editors know they cant sell such a bleak and unredeemed vision in the feel-good Spielberg world of commercial publishing. That could be true, especially now, in the era of Oprahs Book Club, when sickeningly cute rules the mainstream and pointlessly clever the avant-garde; the author with serious intent and lucid execution is a rarity. But the reality is probably simpler, and sadder: Richard Yatess books did not make much money when he was alive and a familiar name to at least the literary reader, and todays editors, on the lookout for the next big thing, assume its unlikely theyll make any more money now.
Not to worry. The same could have been said of Fitzgerald before his resurrection or Faulkner when his greatest work was out of print. Like them, Yates is not only a fine writer, but his fiction represents an important aspect of the American experience: the confusion of the post-war boom. No one portrays the Age of Anxiety as well or as deeply as Yates, or the logical fallout of American individualism, the impossibly high hopes of the 40s and 50s curdling, turning bitter. And like his idols Hemingway and Fitzgeraldespecially FitzgeraldYates lived a life that provides a mirror for the work, an easy handle for a public that likes personalities more than books.
A good biography could spark a re-evaluation of his achievement, though at present there doesnt appear to be one on the horizon. Likewise, the movie possibilities are nil. In an age when the publication of bad drafts of Ellison and Hemingway are literary occasions, the posthumous debut of Uncertain Times (or just the two chapters in Esquire) might stir things up, but, publicly, theres no evidence it still exists.
For now, writers will have to keep the novels and stories of Richard Yates alive, rescuing copies from used book stores and passing them along to students and fellow writers just as theyve passed along James Salters A Sport and a Pastime, Marilynne Robinsons Housekeeping, and William Maxwells Time Will Darken It for years. We shouldnt have to do it, but we will, gladly. Perhaps in the future, if were lucky, someone will do it for us.