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Grim reaper

Richard Yates's compassionate eye

by Jon Garelick

THE COLLECTED STORIES OF RICHARD YATES. Introduction by Richard Russo. Henry Holt, 474 pages, $28.
THE EASTER PARADE. By Richard Yates. Picador USA, 229 pages, $13 (paper).

[Richard Yates] The critic Helen Vendler once likened reading the collected poetry of Robert Lowell to being pressed to death by stones -- and she was a fan! You could offer a similar assessment of the novelist and short-story writer Richard Yates. In his world, things generally start badly and rapidly get worse. "Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960" (Disturbing the Peace). "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce" (The Easter Parade). "In the spring of her sophomore year, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn't love him anymore" ("A Natural Girl"). "Nothing ever seemed to go right for the 57th Division" ("A Compassionate Leave").

That's a sampling of first lines, but it gives you an idea of Yates's general narrative trajectory. He's a brilliant craftsman (at his best, he doesn't waste a single image or gesture), and his work is so aggressively anti-sentimental that his stories sometimes come off like beautifully constructed machines intended to strip their characters of every last illusion.

The opening of "Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired" is emblematic. The narrator is an adult looking back at a period in his childhood when he lived with his divorced mother and older sister in a Greenwich Village apartment. The mother is a second-rate sculptor with (as is often the case with mothers in Yates's fiction) a tendency toward grandiosity. Early in the story she tells her children to go out and play in the garden. "She always called the courtyard `the garden,' though nothing grew there except a few stunted city trees and a patch of grass that never had a chance to spread." The courtyard is "scattered with the droppings of dogs and cats," with a general "hemmed-in, cheerless look." But then the narrator's eye alights on a birdbath-like marble fountain near the house:

The original idea of the fountain was that water would drip evenly from around the rim of its upper tier and tinkle into its lower basin, but age had unsettled it; the water spilled in a single ropy stream from the only inch of the upper tier's rim that stayed clean. The lower basin was deep enough to soak your feet in on a hot day, but there wasn't much pleasure in that because the underwater part of the marble was coated with brown scum.

That's the Yates MO -- imagery that's as anti-lyrical as it is anti-sentimental, the "garden" called by its rightful name, "courtyard," the one relieving detail revealed as a poor substitute for beauty, and everything, in essence, reduced to that final resonant syllable: "scum."

Yates, who died in 1992, is in the midst of a reappraisal. His Collected Stories have just been published by Henry Holt, following the paperback reissues of the novel that first gained him fame, Revolutionary Road (Vintage), and The Easter Parade (Picador USA). Picador will follow later this year with the novels A Special Providence and A Good School. And a biography is in the works for 2002.

Yates is a favorite of other fiction writers and so has earned that dubious distinction, "writer's writer." Richard Ford introduces the new Revolutionary Road, Richard Russo The Collected Stories. Approving blurbs have been provided by Michael Chabon and Stewart O'Nan.

The critics have been more divided. Some cite Yates's narrow emotional range. And yes, you can mark the same signposts in story after story, novel after novel, many of which follow the rough outlines of his life: the two-sibling-single-mother family, the unillustrious WW2 career in the infantry, the post-war job writing ad copy, the tuberculosis wards, the disintegrating marriages, the gigs in Hollywood and at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, the depression, the alcoholism. And there's the occasional verbal tic, such as the tendency of his men to address their mates as "baby." It's not for nothing that, following the publication of one story collection in the '80s, a critic chided Yates for "obsessively circling the same half acre of pain."

But it's also easy to see what appeals to fans: he knows how to tell a story, and he's compulsively readable. The only comfort he offers is the storytelling itself, the ability to establish a character in a phrase or single line of dialogue ("He was forty-nine and twice-divorced; he was often weak with ambition and anger and alcohol . . . ") and then to modulate the development of scenes with a just proportion that carries characters and readers alike swiftly to their fates. The stories are fully imagined, lived in. In later efforts like "Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired" and "Saying Goodbye to Sally," the smallest, seemingly most casual "scene-setting" details -- a decorative postage stamp, a Japanese table -- return, charged with new meanings, new effects.

And then there's Yates's compassion (even for those narcissistic mother characters), which is reflected in his technique. The formal constraints of the short story demand compression, stylization, irony -- the kind of narrative moves that create emotional distance. Cheever's innovation was to take the "slice-of-life" casual naturalism of the post-war short story and transform it -- in masterpieces like "The Enormous Radio" and "The Swimmer" -- with a touch of the supernatural that can be traced back to Hawthorne. Yates had his own way of resisting the short story's shackles. Early stories like "The Best of Everything" (about an office girl on the eve of her wedding day) and "No Pain Whatsoever" (about a wife's visit to her husband in the tuberculosis ward) are perfectly constructed, and so are their ironies. But Yates's stories got better -- and found their own voice, his voice -- as they got longer, as in "Builders" (in which the would-be novelist protagonist takes on a ghostwriting gig for a cab driver) and "A Really Good Jazz Piano" (about the mutual humiliation of two Yale buddies on the town in post-war Paris).

These are all from Yates's first collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which was originally published in 1962; and they're all included in the Collected Stories. By the time of Liars in Love (1981), the stories are long, running to 30 pages in their originally published form. They're as beautifully "made" as any of his shorter pieces (those repeated, resonant details), but they unfold with the unhurried naturalism of his novels. Several novels down the road, Yates's voice is immediately recognizable, not just in the pitiless dying fall of those illusion-stripping sentences but in the small emotional shocks enfolded in his narratives. In "Liars in Love," after a few pages of being immersed in the ageless domestic tribulations of one Warren Mathews, a writer in England on a Fulbright scholarship with his family, we learn: "It was March of 1953, and he was twenty-seven years old." After that "cheerless" opening of "Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired," we're swept up, along with the man-child narrator, in the remembered hug of his father. You feel these moments because of the way Yates sets them up and delivers them: Warren Mathews's age arriving in that flat, declarative sentence like a slap after the world-weary exposition of the first few pages; that hug like a spontaneous effusion of emotion in its suddenness. As tightly controlled as any of his earlier stories, these longer works nonetheless melt the cold distance of narrative technique.

Yates's Revolutionary Road established his reputation in 1961, when he was 35. (Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, Yates would joke later in life, "robbed me of the National Book Award" -- then he'd add with crack comic timing, "Well, me and a couple of other people.") But there are murmurings among his cult of fans that the recently reissued The Easter Parade is the great Yates novel. Revolutionary Road was indeed revolutionary in its time -- a story of domestic tragedy set in post-war American suburbia that anticipates Richard Ford's The Sportswriter and Independence Day, as well as any other number of tales of middle-class marriage and woe since. Despite back-story flashbacks, though, the novel spans one season in the lives of Frank and April Wheeler. The Easter Parade follows the hapless Grimes sisters from their birth in the '20s right through the early '70s in barely more than 200 pages. It has a breathtaking narrative momentum, settling into the point of view of the younger sister, Emily.

If it's sometimes too easy to see the author in his male protagonists, Emily Grimes provides us with distance. Again we have the grandiose, narcissistic, self-destructive mother, the general alcoholism -- she even makes one of Yates's stops at the Iowa Writer's Workshop, courtesy of her romance with an older man who's a poet. We can watch Emily make one bad decision after another, but it's hard to feel superior to her, especially when she has her moments of insight: she sees her mother all too clearly and drops her poet lover in an uncommonly intelligent moment of self-realization.

Like many of Yates's characters, Emily shows how easy it is for a life to go wrong with a few simple bad decisions -- or failures to decide. (In his introduction to the stories, Richard Russo talks about the role of "luck" in Yates's tales.) And the loneliness of these characters is easy to feel. The screenwriter protagonist of "Saying Goodbye to Sally" is bewildered in his self-absorption as he looks back at the house of the title character, and you can sense his condescension toward this "fling" disappear -- another moment of melting compassion. In the new "A Private Possession" (one of the best of the seven previously unpublished tales that conclude The Collected Stories), we're left alone with a crying schoolgirl; no condescending here, either.

It's best to remember moments like these when discussing Yates's "limitations." It's not that he doesn't have them -- his grim tales are unalleviated by the comedy or verbal extravagance of Updike or Roth, or those moments of lyric grace that visit Cheever's characters. Sometimes it seems faith itself is completely absent from his work -- not just the spiritual or religious kind but even faith in talent (his work is peopled with battalions of underachievers). What you're left with instead is characters you can feel in your bones.

Some critics (and clearly Yates's publishers) are hoping that The Collected Stories will secure his reputation once and for all, as Cheever's collected stories did for him. Of course, Cheever's career and Yates's are apples and oranges. Yates gained fame early on as a novelist; Cheever didn't publish his first novel until age 45, and he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Stories of John Cheever at 66 -- the age at which Yates died. One can only hope that Yates's novels and stories will stay in print long enough for readers to find them.

I have just one other caveat regarding Yates's Collected Stories. The book ends with a short biography of the author that lists all the failures and illnesses and disappointments with an unsparing concision worthy of Yates himself. I knew Yates casually and briefly when he was teaching and I was a student at the Boston University Graduate Creative Writing Program at Boston University in the early '80s. Yes, he was a physically ill man who lived alone, drank a lot of watery beer, and smoked too many True Blue cigarettes. But he was sharp and funny and revered by his students and respected and protected by a large circle of fellow writers, from Russo and Ford to Andre Dubus and Jayne Anne Phillips. I don't mean to sound un-Yatesianly sentimental, but the closing biography seems to cheat not only Yates but the many people who loved him.

Novelists Leslie Epstein, DeWitt Henry, and Jayne Anne Phillips read and discuss the work of Richard Yates at the WordsWorth Reading Room, 30 Brattle Street in Harvard Square, Cambridge, next Thursday, May 24 at 7 p.m. Call (617) 354-5201.

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