Richard Yates – the Best of the Rest

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Richard Yate’s 1961 novel Revolutionary Road is now rightly claimed as a modern classic, with an accompanying film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. While this novel received initial critical praise on publication, Yates never achieved the status he deserved as a writer during his lifetime. Although not perhaps the ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’ great American writer as has sometimes been claimed, fellow authors and critics continually feel compelled to champion his work and assert him as one of the giants of 20th century literature. Julian Barnes is an enthusiastic cheerleader for Yate’s The Easter Parade, recently nominating it in a Guardian Review article on books that should have won the Nobel prize for literature, and Kate Atkinson quotes often adorn the Vintage editions of his work with the 1950s style cover illustrations. These editions are testament to the fact that Yates is a now a writer attached to a particular time, a chronicler of an era in American history, even if it went largely unrealised at the time. Fans of Revolutionary Road will be pleased to know that the essential style and themes of his books are consistent in mood, if completely different in circumstance and character. Like the title of Yates collection of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and indeed Tolstoy’s unhappy families, each Yates creation is unsatisfied in their own peculiar way. Here is my pick of the best of the rest of Yates…

The Easter Parade (1976)

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The Easter Parade, a novel generally thought to be another classic alongside Revolutionary Road, is the only Yates novel where the main protagonists are women. However, sisters Emily and Sarah have all the same issues as his men – alcoholism, doomed relationships and failed artistic aspirations. The Easter Parade has been championed by Julian Barnes many times over the years, and it is obvious why. Barnes would kill for a book as unselfconscious as this, a deceptively straightforward tale of two sisters which is realist and natural in style, with the signposts and themes hanging together perfectly in the background. Sadness, pathos and beauty deliver themselves to the reader in the story of Emily and Sarah, and are never strained for in Yates writing.

Sarah marries young and moves to the country while Emily takes the ‘career girl’ path in the city and never settles down. While there is no doubt that these women love each other, they grow apart and end up with little to say to one another. The sister’s story is a perfect conduit for a Yates rumination on the sad passage of time, of how our lives often turn out far from what we expected, with no chance to turn back the clock and repair the damage. Emily wastes her time on a series of love affairs which are initially thrilling, using the sex and passion to distract from her unhappiness. The once beautiful Sarah is as sad an alcoholic as any of Yates’ sad alcoholics, a woman who ends up frumpy with bad teeth, unable to attend the show she has travelled to the city to see when too many martinis are consumed over lunch.

The sister’s strange, eccentric mother, who insists they call her ‘Pookie’, is the shadow over their lives, a woman whose delusions of grandeur embarrass and distress the girls in childhood and burden them as adults. Although a facsimile of this character appears in Cold Spring Harbour, the key to Pookie’s inspiration is in the name. Yates’ own mother was a failed artist and fantasist who preferred to be known as Dookie. The harsh yet strangely sympathetic depiction of Pookie is almost certainly Yates working out his mummy issues on page, making for a sad and wonderfully perceptive novel, with the irony never far from the surface in the late afternoon scotch and soda mix.

Disturbing the Peace (1975)

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Although all of Yates’ work drew heavily on his own life for inspiration, Disturbing the Peace is probably his most autobiographical work. Apparently dismissed by critics as a failure on publication, it is in fact an arresting study of mental illness by a man who suffered from psychiatric breakdowns throughout his life.

John C Wilder is a successful advertising salesman but his life is no longer satisfying him. In this novel the connection between alcoholism and mental breakdown, which often features to some degree in Yates’ other work, comes to the fore as John’s drinking becomes out of control and leads him to NYC psychiatric unit Bellevue. Yates himself was a chronic alcoholic who had many mental breakdowns over the years, ending up in a series of state institutions including Bellevue. The descent into madness, fuelled by an anxiety driven desire to drink-drink-drink, leaves Wilder in a predicament which, despite all his infidelity and bad behaviour, the reader can’t help but empathise with. Friends who I have lent this book to have been similarly struck by this disturbing and sad portrayal of multiple breakdowns, as we watch Wilder gets better, become manic again and eventually go mad in a seemingly inevitable cycle.

There is also much humour and clever satirical bite to this novel. A very enjoyable postmodern element occurs in the narrative when John’s life is made into a film, and the producers discuss the dramatic need for further breakdown in the character’s life, a knowing wink from Yates to the reader, signalling tough times ahead. In another flash of dark humour, John’s young lover leaves him for another man, a successful writer named Chet. John is a short man, and his hang ups over his height run throughout the book. Once she is safely ensconced with Chet we are treated to the following exchange:

“Oh, Chet” she said, stretching up on tiptoe to receive the kiss, “You’re so nice and tall.”

This line and many others had me chuckling away into my brandy and cigarette, which is, of course, the best way to read any Yates book.

Cold Spring Harbour (1986)

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Yates’ last novel, Cold Spring Harbour, contains his most simple and straightforward narrative, yet is arguably his most sad and affecting. In depicting a doomed young marriage in the sparse Long Island town of Cold Spring Harbour, the story is stripped to it’s bones, with none of the irony or humour of his earlier works.

When Evan Shepard’s car breaks down while on a trip to New York city with his father, he encounters the Drake family and takes a shine to the young and attractive Rachel. However, Rachel’s eccentric mother Gloria and awkward younger brother Phil come as part of the package when the couple begin their married life in Cold Spring Harbour. Gloria as the clingy, deluded mother is an instantly familiar character to Yates fans, surely based on his own mother. However, Rachel is a very rare thing in Yates’ world, an innocent. In most of his work, we are sympathetic with the character but are aware on some level that their unhappiness is often of their own making. Rachel’s biggest sin is in trying to please everyone and, in what is often the way, pleases no one.

The Drakes are a small, unlucky family, used to clinging together against the world. Even Gloria, a tiresome and irritating raconteur, is just a desperate woman who should be pitied more than anything else. As Evan’s father Charles notes after his first encounter with her, “There’s never been anything funny about a woman dying for love.”

Evan Shepard doesn’t have the usual excuses of a Yates anti-hero – failed literary success, alcoholism, mental breakdown – to justify the destruction of his marriage and and is much of a puzzle to the reader as he is to his poor bewildered parents. His mother Grace provides this novel with the obligatory alcoholic, a mysterious woman ‘taken to bed’ whose husband brings her daily doses of hard liquor to be consumed in her chair on the porch.

Devoid of any drama or knowing winks, Yates’ final quiet book could also be his most heartbreaking.

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