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).
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
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
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)