The Lost World of Richard Yates
Why a great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print
October 1, 1999
Oct 1, 1999
48 Min read time
Since his death in 1992, all nine of Richard Yates’s titles have quietly dropped off the shelves. Once the most vaunted of authors–praised by Styron and Vonnegut and Robert Stone as the voice of a generation–he seems now to belong to that august yet sad category, the writer’s writer. Andre Dubus, who was his student at Iowa, revered him, as does Tobias Wolff, and the jackets of Yates’s 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 McCarthy’s 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 doesn’t fit the mold of a writer’s writer. He’s 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. There’s 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 writer’s writer he might be compared to would be Chekhov, or perhaps Fitzgerald, though without Fitzgerald’s 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 haven’t. 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. He’s 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, he’s 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 you’ll 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 it’s 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 books–the world of those books–will somehow survive. In time the shoddy and trendy work will fall away and the good books will rise to the top. It’s 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 it’s between covers, they can’t 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-respected–even loved–by 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 Fitzgerald’s 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 Faulkner’s and Fitzgerald’s did, and Yates will take his place in the American canon. How this will come about it’s 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.
• • •
Born in Yonkers in 1926, Yates came from an unstable family. His parents divorced when he was three, and during the Depression he and his mother and sister bounced around the metro area from apartment to apartment. After graduating from The Avon School in 1944, he joined the Army, shipped off to France and, like so many of the young American writers of the ’50s, saw combat. He also contracted TB and recovered after a brief convalescence. After serving in the occupation of Germany, he returned to New York where he married. In 1951, using a disability pension the Army had given him for his TB, he moved to Europe for several years where he wrote stories. When he came back he took on writing jobs for The United Press and Remington Rand, then used ghostwriting and teaching at The New School to pay the bills while his stories were slowly being published. In 1959 he and his wife divorced, his wife winning custody of their two daughters.
In 1961 Seymour Lawrence at Atlantic—Little, Brown published Yates’s 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 become–possibly–a writer. Frank’s 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 hadn’t 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 it’s difficult for her. She knows him too well.
The novel’s 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 Howard’s sham romantic puts him in the position of taking a bullet from Bogie’s real villain, Duke Mantee.
The suburban production is a train wreck, and the hopes of the audience–Frank among them–are 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 show’s saving grace, soon falls apart on stage; the sequence is excruciating in its humiliation. Yates crushes not only Frank’s and April’s hopes, but the reader’s, making us suffer along with his characters:
She was working alone, and visibly weakening with every line. Before the end of the first act the audience could tell as well as the Players that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.
And this is only the first act. Another author might cut away, but Yates keeps us there–stuck like Frank–watching 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 there’s more of it to come; it can’t be stopped, we’ll simply have to endure it. Because we’ve all been in these situations, we know the only thing April wants is for it to end. Yet–like shame, like life–it 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:
... he had drawn strength from a mental projection of scenes to unfold tonight: himself rushing home to swing his children laughing in the air, to gulp a cocktail and chatter through an early dinner with his wife; himself driving her to the high school, with her thigh tense and warm under his reassuring hand ("If only I weren’t so nervous, Frank!"); himself sitting spellbound in pride and then rising to join a thunderous ovation as the curtain fell; himself glowing and disheveled, pushing his way through jubilant backstage crowds to claim her first tearful kiss ("Was it really good, darling? Was it really good?"); and then the two of them, stopping for a drink in the admiring company of Shep and Milly Campbell, holding hands under the table while they talked it all out. Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing ("Wouldn’t you like to be loved by me?"), and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.
Their meeting in the dressing room is awkward and prolonged. Afterward, driving home, Frank tries to tell her it doesn’t matter by ridiculing the other members of the cast, the audience, the entire suburban society of America, but April doesn’t 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? There’s a self-consciousness, an anxiety of not being quite right or knowing precisely how to behave that undermines all their scoffing at conformity. It’s as if they’re playing at their roles of man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father, terrified they’ll 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 we’re 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. That’s 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, they’re certainly not strong ones, neither heroes nor anti-heroes. In a sense, they’re 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 say–as if blaming them for a spiritual lack of imagination or absence of self-worth–yet he has chosen them to write about and asks us to seriously contemplate their inner lives, which we do.
• • •
The question of what the reader is supposed to do with his or her sympathy and empathy is complex in Revolutionary Road, and also in the later work. As Greek tragedy turns around its characters’ fatal flaws, so does Yates’s fiction. The depth and breadth of characterization is much fuller, of course, but the end result is the same: the characters earn their downfall, seem fated to it. It’s this merciless limning of his people that makes Yates unique and the process of reading his work so affecting (some would say terrifying). We recognize the disappointments and miscalculations his characters suffer from our own less-than-heroic lives. And Yates refuses to spoon-feed us the usual redeeming, life-affirming plot twist that makes everything better. No comedy dilutes the humiliation. When it’s time to face the worst, there’s no evasion whatsoever, no softening of the blows.
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 drama–as in Dostoevsky–is 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 April’s 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 won’t 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. It’s 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 Road–and throughout his work–is 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 people–love and success balanced by loneliness and failure–and 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 characters–and we, as readers, perhaps the country as a whole–admit the simple, painful truth.
It’s 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 didn’t change, they just followed a track into a dead end and left you there. To find a writer who understood that and didn’t gussy it up with tough-guy irony or drown it in sentimental tears was a revelation. Yates–even in the mid-’80s, when I first read Revolutionary Road–seemed to me a refreshing change from the false, cloying fiction that passed for realism. He still does.
Contemporary reaction to Revolutionary Road was overwhelmingly positive–raves for Yates’s eye and ear. The few qualms reviewers had reveal more about the uniqueness of Yates’s 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 wasn’t 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 book’s criticism of the culture was dependent on how heroic Frank and April are (conveniently ignoring the fact that most Americans–and decidedly most of the book’s readers–are probably closer to Frank and April than to any typical fictional hero). But overall the reception was gushy. America had a new major writer.
Atlantic—Little, Brown capitalized on the critical success of Revolutionary Road by collecting Yates’s 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. It’s a world purposefully not quirky or picturesque, just plain and sad and inescapable.
If middle class life seemed empty in Revolutionary Road, here it’s 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 time–maybe 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 introspective–a true rarity for a Yates character, and maybe the effect of using the first person.
And where are the windows? Where does the light come in?
Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.
Palpable throughout the collection, here Yates’s pity for his characters, like Bob Prentice’s, is explicit. While the stories are tough, they’re 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 technically–line by line–Yates was faultless. The collection solidified his reputation and made readers eager to see what he would do next.
Yates and Sam Lawrence didn’t hurry another book into print. Buoyed by his new celebrity, and drinking now that he was alone, he accepted John Frankenheimer’s offer to write a screenplay of William Styron’s 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 JFK’s 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 wasn’t 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 didn’t eat. Apparently he was hospitalized during this period for a nervous breakdown–perhaps several times, according to a comment made in a later interview: "I’ve been in and out of bughouses, yes."
The visibility of Revolutionary Road and Yates’s subsequent silence naturally had people wondering if he was a one-hit wonder, if he’d let his success intimidate him. "I don’t 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 book’s epigraph comes from Auden, "We are lived by powers we pretend to understand," and prepares us for another pair of Yates’s clueless, deluded heroes–Robert 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 Yates’s 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 they’ll want for nothing. Bob "saw himself as the hero of some inspiring movie.... The trouble was that his mother refused to play her role." He’s 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 can’t I have my illusions?," Bob says, "Because they’re lies." And yet throughout his tour of duty, Bob imagines himself in a war movie. He’s just as starry-eyed as she is.
As in much of Yates’s 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 fails–at 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 clear–much of the war writing flinty and reminiscent of Hemingway’s best work in A Farewell to Arms–and 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 Barthelme’s surrealistic fictions ran nearly monthly in the New Yorker. Compared to the experimentalists, Yates’s traditional approach seemed a throwback, easily ignored.
Yates made no apologies for sticking by his guns:
I’ve tried and tried but I can’t stomach most of what’s being called ‘The Post-Realistic Fiction’ . . . I know it’s all very fashionable stuff and I know it provides an endless supply of witty little intellectual puzzles and puns and fun and games for graduate students to play with, but it’s emotionally empty. It isn’t felt.
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 didn’t 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 Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Heller’s Catch-22 (then enjoying a resurgence), A Special Providence didn’t speak to current issues. Joyce Carol Oates in the Nation praised the book–and all of Yates’s work–calling his characters "invisible people, not quite there, unable to assert themselves or to guide their own destinies":
One feels that his people never have a chance: odd things may happen to them, but they are never odd enough, never tragic and awful enough, to lead to a change of vision. . . . A sad, gray, deathly world–dreams without substance–aging without maturity: this is Yates’s world, and it is a disturbing one.
But while A Special Providence extended and deepened Yates’s world, it wasn’t 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 generation–or 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 book’s 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 Yates’s 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 author’s and reader’s 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 Yates’s propensity for the tragic. Wilder, hearing of JFK’s death, reacts strangely:
He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too rich, too young, too handsome and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder knew those forces all too well. He almost felt he’d pulled the trigger himself, and he was grateful to be here, trembling and safe in his own kitchen, two thousand miles away.
Yates’s 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 mother’s 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). It’s as if it’s the duty of those who know the pain of failure, of being unloved– almost as a protest–to initiate those who haven’t discovered it yet, or to remind those who have but choose to ignore it, like Alice Prentice.
Disturbing the Peace is Richard Yates’s 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 novel–if, indeed, there was one left in him. Disturbing the Peace confirmed for some that Yates was finished, that, like Fitzgerald and so many others, he’d 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 Yates’s 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 they’re special, and that her two girls will turn out to be something.
They don’t. 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 Sarah’s funeral, Emily remembers her sister playing with dolls and singing "Welcome, Sweet Springtime" and "Look for the Silver Lining." In Yates’s hands, the distance between these sentimental songs and the reality of Sarah’s life becomes more than just easy or laughable irony but unutterably sad–as 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 Yates’s 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. She’s 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 can’t 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 human–too human, really–and deserving of our empathy. In the words of John Gardner, as a character she’s "worthy of and capable of love," though never really given the chance to prove it. That’s 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 he’d become not only exacting but prolific. His life had become regimented. He’d 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 Yates’s own graduation from the Avon School, 1944. The epigraph is from the author’s favorite writer, Fitzgerald, his famous "Draw your chair up close to the edge of the precipice and I’ll 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 Yates’s parents, the narrator’s are divorced, the father a salesman for GE’s Mazda Lamp division, the mother a frustrated sculptress. The father even shares Yates’s father’s 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 we’re familiar with in Yates–possibly due to the natural openness of the first person, and also the effect of looking back:
They had been divorced almost as long as I could remember.
He greatly loved my sister–I think that must have been the main reason for his generosity to us–but he and I, after I was eleven or so, seemed always bewildered by each other. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement between us that, in the dividing process of the divorce, I had been given over to my mother.
There was pain in that assumption–for both of us, I would guess, though I can’t speak for him–yet there was an uneasy justice in it too. Much as I might wish it otherwise, I did prefer my mother. I knew she was foolish and irresponsible, that she talked too much, that she made crazy emotional scenes over nothing and could be counted on to collapse in a crisis, but I had come to suspect, dismally, that my own personality might be built along much the same lines. In ways that were neither profitable nor especially pleasant, she and I were a comfort to one another.
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 it–Richard 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 can’t 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 novel–the matching half of the present day first person frame–the 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 Yates’s gentlest book, the one in which he shows the most overt love and pity for his people. The loneliness and yearning of Yates’s adolescents and even his few adults comes through beautifully, and there’s 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 didn’t sell, relegating Yates–permanently, it seemed–to the limbo of the mid-list author, well-regarded but hardly read.
In October 1981, twenty years after Revolutionary Road, Delacorte brought out Yates’s second collection of stories, Liars in Love. While the work was recent–some appearing in The Atlantic and Ploughshares–all but one story is set in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, and all of it can be read through the author’s life.
The opening story, "Oh, Joseph, I’m 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 Carver’s, 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. Carver’s 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 Yates’s earlier books understood that, like his student Andre Dubus’s stories of the 1970s, his was seminal work. After being called old-fashioned much of his career, Yates–in retrospect–was 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 story’s 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 didn’t know–a freedom Yates’s people, so determined by their history, never have. Yates’s 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 Yates’s 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 reader’s response. James Atlas in The Atlantic called Yates "the bleakest writer I know," adding:
... Yates gives such savage portraits of his characters’ inadequacies that one no longer cares about them; having nervous breakdowns, sopping up gin, they seem beyond salvaging. The novelist, like the tyrant, has complete authority over his subjects, and must rule with at least occasional benevolence or risk revolt. It isn’t enough to claim accuracy, to reproduce an alcoholic’s haggard speech or a failed artist’s delusions of fame; there must be some tempering sense of grace or pity.
But then Atlas himself tempered this:
Toward his more limited, ignorant characters Yates can be pitiless, even vindictive; but toward those who make an effort, however primitive, to retain their dignity–an English prostitute, a secretary who aspires to write radio plays–he is generous. They’re not to blame, he implies; life in general is a shabby affair.
Robert Wilson in the Washington Post weighed in, saying:
Yates does not go wrong when his nostalgia flirts with sentimentality ... problems arise when he moves too far in the other direction, distancing himself from his stories by showing too little sympathy for the characters.
This is a problem that recurs both in these stories ... and elsewhere in Yates’s work. When the suburban housewife of Revolutionary Road kills herself while trying to abort a child, it is shocking and sad, but without the emotional impact it would have had if she were a character about whom we felt more strongly. Yates looks darkly at human nature; one of his strengths is that he doesn’t flinch. But the very best writers can show us our silliness and vanity, or worse, in characters whom we cannot dismiss so easily.
Atlas, trying to be kind, misses Yates’s gist entirely. Yates does not play favorites; the world, according to his vision, grinds all his characters down alike, and–as in Kafka–the more they struggle, the more painfully they fail. The worst that can be said of Yates’s people is that they don’t know when to give up and instead continue to humiliate themselves even as we, the reader, want them to stop. That’s 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 doesn’t strike him as likable. His claim that the reader doesn’t feel strongly about April is spurious; there’s 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 he’s held back a final measure of emotion for her because with all her flaws she doesn’t fit his idealized view of a saintly, more deserving heroine.
What Wilson doesn’t understand is that the reason it is impossible to dismiss Yates’s characters–the reason they bother and touch us so much–is his refusal to present them as typically sympathetic and strong. Like us, they’re unheroic, rightfully ashamed of their worst selves and hoping to do better. Their failures are tragic because they’re not unexpected. Like Chekhov, Yates has even more affection for his characters because of their faults, and like Chekhov, he’s 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 Yates’s now solid literary reputation, Delta, Delacorte’s trade paperback arm, brought out a reprint of Revolutionary Road. Yates’s 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 Yates’s young people, Michael and Lucy are full of longing yet passive, almost paralyzed by their tentativeness; they don’t 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 they’d 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. They’re 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 hasn’t helped her transcend anything. Michael, who’s 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 Michael’s point of view; he’s thinking of Sarah, the young woman who may or may not return to him:
‘ ... Everybody’s essentially alone,’ she’d told him, and he was beginning to see a lot of truth in that. Besides: now that he was older, and now that he was home, it might not even matter how the story turned out in the end.
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, that’s 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 Yates’s 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 didn’t sell, despite being a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate Selection. Though he’d published eight challenging and original books to considerable praise, Esquire was right when it said, "Richard Yates is one of America’s least famous great writers."
1986’s Cold Spring Harbor didn’t change that. Concise, plain-spoken, and sad, it fits neatly into Yates’s 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 Davenport’s or John Wilder’s, doesn’t 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 Yates’s fiction. Lowry Pei in the daily edition found it "difficult if not impossible to feel sympathy with the characters’ dreams":
... though the narrator at times strains to differentiate himself from the characters by condescending to them, at other times he seems to share their sensibilities so completely there is no perspective on them. This uneasy combination of acceptance and revulsion leaves the reader no distinct place to stand in the attempt to re-create the world Mr. Yates wishes to evoke.
In the Sunday Book Review, though, Michiko Kakutani explained the same effect a different way:
... Mr. Yates writes of these characters with sympathy so clear-hearted that it often feels like nostalgia for his own youth, and yet he is also thoroughly uncompromising in revealing their capacity for self-delusion, their bewilderment in the face of failure.
Both reviewers treat Yates’s 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 judged–they simply are. Yates, like Joyce’s 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 author’s fault?
The danger Yates courts is combining the conflicted character with the average or unexceptional person–with 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 they’re exceptional (Richard III, Hannibal Lecter), but it’s 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, Yates’s narrating characters are never fully unsympathetic, though some of his supporting characters are. Rather than cruel, more often they’re 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 world–populated as it is by mostly unexceptional, imperfect people–Yates 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 Yates’s 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 Yates’s friends and admirers gathered to remember him. Lawrence collected their tributes in a limited edition, Frank Conroy’s and Jayne Anne Phillips’s among them. In the New York Times obituary, he said he was unsure if the manuscript of Uncertain Times would be published.
It wasn’t. Several years later, Lawrence died, leaving Richard Yates’s 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 can’t 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 Oprah’s 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 Yates’s books did not make much money when he was alive and a familiar name to at least the literary reader, and today’s editors, on the lookout for the next big thing, assume it’s unlikely they’ll 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 Fitzgerald–especially Fitzgerald–Yates 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 doesn’t 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, there’s 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 they’ve passed along James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and William Maxwell’s Time Will Darken It for years. We shouldn’t have to do it, but we will, gladly. Perhaps in the future, if we’re lucky, someone will do it for us.
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October 01, 1999
48 Min read time