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View Poll Results: Set before the Palimpublic by JS and HP, who now has read a Yates?
Me, me, me! Over here! I have! 28 62.22%
Nope, not I, but heck, he looks tempting 13 28.89%
No, and I ain't gunna 4 8.89%
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Old 11th Mar 2005, 16:43   #1
John Self
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I thought it was time for a Richard Yates thread, since (a) I'm reading his recently reissued novel Cold Spring Harbor, and (b) HoneyPotts has been eloquently singing praise of him in various forums for months and it's well overdue. Honey's thoughts on Yates's life and work - here and here (and possibly elsewhere that I haven't found) are essential reading.

Anyway. In the UK, Yates is a writer who gives posthumous hope to all those who scribble away in the hope of being recognised one day soon (or far): he died in 1992 and it's only since 2001 that his books have begun to take off in this country. What happened was that his collected short stories and his first novel were reissued by Methuen, a publisher only known to me before from Monty Python books-of-the-film in my youth (oh yeah, and plays).



The first novel was Revolutionary Road (1961), which in the few years since its reissue has gone on to become a word-of-mouth classic. And rightly so, as it is “a masterpiece in modern American fiction” (Tennessee Williams), “the Great Gatsby of my time” (Kurt Vonnegut). In it there are elements of Heller's Something Happened (in the protagonists' simultaneous hatred and acceptance of the career ladder and the workaday grind), Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (for the desire to reject said system and final inability to do so), and even Maugham's The Razor's Edge (for the Larkinesque "Poetry of Departures" aspect ("So to hear it said / He walked out on the whole crowd / Leaves me flushed and stirred")).

From all of which you will detect that this is a story of middle-class suburban angst. Frank and April Wheeler are a 29-year-old couple but seem much older: they are settled and familied, set up for the long slide to the grave. This being the 50s, he works at something in emergent technologies and she looks after the house. But they have, as the psychiatrists say, some insight into their condition and they decide early on that they will pack up and leave the suburban dream and go and live in Europe, where Frank will "find himself" and write and paint and be the general flaneur, and April will work to keep the family. Whether you consider them naive or admirably ambitious, it will not be ruining the book to tell you that they do not make it to Europe. They may not even make it into their thirties together. The point of the book is not finding this out (though there are entirely surprising and satisfying plot developments along the way) but finding out how and why.

The best aspects of the book are the secondary characters, like John Givings, the "mentally ill" boy who naturally is the only one who talks sense most of the time; Frank's mistress, the unfortunately named Maureen Grube; and the Wheelers' best friends the Campbells, whose liking for Frank and April is only a paper-slice away from scorn and dismissal. The author, Richard Yates, also has a habit of opening chapters with blisteringly brilliant short narrative or descriptive passages, which lead into the detailed events and lend each chapter an individuality and sense of being a discrete scene, only impressionistically connected to the ones before and after.

And best of all, Yates is to be commended for not letting sentimentality or the desire for a happy ending get in the way of his vision of the book; while until at least halfway through the novel things seem still to be going pretty well for the Wheelers, you can rest assured that the ending will be unflinchingly bleak and leave no room for optimism or complacency. Revolutionary indeed.



By 2003, the book had picked up enough interest to warrant a delve further into Yates’s back catalogue by Methuen, and they reissued what is (apparently: see later) widely agreed to be his next-best book, The Easter Parade (1976). Methuen rather cheekily issued it as a large-format ‘paperback original,’ like a new book. And although he died with a novel, Uncertain Times, more or less completed, it’s never been published and Yates, unlike Italo Calvino and Catherine Cookson, just didn't have the foresight to plug his drawers with half-baked doodlings on which his family could keep themselves in the manner etc. etc. after his death - what a dick! So The Easter Parade is an old, abandoned thing, and like Revolutionary Road, undeservedly so.

Yates is no sentimentalist, and anyone who liked Revolutionary Road will not be expecting a laugh riot, but even so The Easter Parade is remarkably cruel and bleak. He puts his cards on the table in the opening sentence: "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life..." and the following 220 pages pore over their unhappiness in forensic detail. If this was on TV it would be called When Lives Collapse! or possibly just Endurance.

The sisters are Sarah and Emily Grimes (note Dickensian naming with intimations of grimness and grime). Their parents divorce and they live with their mother, who likes them to call her Pookie (am I imagining it or did Honey tell us somewhere that Yates’s mother called herself Dookie – and if so, where was that post again, Honey?). Their father has a great job in a great newspaper - or so they think, until he tells them how he's really nothing more than a low-status hack. And then dies. Sarah gets married to a grunt called Tony and quickly gets a few kids under her belt. Emily meanwhile, who is really the centre of the book, goes through a string of unsuitable relationships, all of which end badly when he leaves her (because he's impotent) or she leaves him (because he's a bore) or he leaves her (because he's bisexual and wants to explore other avenues, so to speak) or she leaves him, and so on... Meanwhile Tony is beating Sarah about, and the one time that she rings Emily wanting to leave him and move in with her, Emily puts her off because for once she's in a good relationship and doesn't want her sister cramping her brief happiness. Which doesn't last anyway, of course.

Ultimately hardly anyone gets out of the book alive, and I'm not sure if there is a tiny chink of light at the end or if I just imagined it, desperate for relief. I kept reading partly because it's brilliantly written and partly out of morbid curiosity to see what Yates would do to his little laboratory mice next. And it's not only the things that happen to the characters that is cruel, but also Yates's apparent contempt for them, or perhaps the better word is disinterest: like the god of their world he is, he will not intervene to improve their lot.

So it's hard to know what the message is in The Easter Parade (perhaps Yates would have balked at the suggestion, as Douglas Adams did: "No message. If I'd wanted to write a message I'd have written a message. I wrote a book"): that life is hard and then you die? That whatever you throw at them, people will keep coming back for more? That, to quote Kurt Vonnegut, the majority of lives simply aren't worth living? The only thing it told me for sure is that yes, there is a book out there that makes Revolutionary Road look like Hi-de-Hi. (You know: the bit in chapter 4 where Frank Wheeler won the knobbly knees contest.)



And so. Last year they missed a trick but this January things were back on course and Methuen have just issued – straight into normal paperback format, now there’s progress – Yates’s last published novel, Cold Spring Harbor (1986). And I am reading it now and so have nothing more to say, yet… In July this year we will get his penultimate novel Young Hearts Crying (1984) and next January it’s time for his second, A Special Providence (1969), which will leave only A Good School (197 and what is apparently (again: see below) his “only bad novel” Disturbing the Peace (1975) unapparent on the horizon.



The source from which I gathered, above, that The Easter Parade was reputed to be his second best novel and Disturbing the Peace his worst, was this superb assessment of Yates’s work from 1999 – when, poignantly, all his work was out of print in the US as well. Maybe the piece was even instrumental in getting it brought back out of the cemetery of forgotten books. Anyway, read it.. Then read Revolutionary Road, and the stories (as I am about to, before Honey kills me for starting a Yates thread without starting the stories), and so on…

Richard Yates Bibliography:
Revolutionary Road (1961)
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (stories) (1962)
A Special Providence (1969)
Disturbing the Peace (1975)
The Easter Parade (1976)
A Good School (197
Liars in Love (stories) (1981)
Young Hearts Crying (1984)
Cold Spring Harbor (1986)
Collected Stories (2001)

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Old 11th Mar 2005, 23:31   #2
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Now, how did I miss this thread earlier? The merest mention of the fabulous Richard Yates and I'm usually right there. John - I wouldn't dream of killing you - anyone who understands why the man is such a literary gem and is prepared to spread the word (and in such style) is alriiiiiight by me!

And you're bang on about there being no message in any of his stories - Easter Parade included - just characters (many based on close relatives and occasionally, friends) who must say and do as their nature dictates, not to accommodate a pre-ordained theme. What you get with Mr Yates is a beautifully recorded slice of reality - no literary gymnastics, no flash gimmickry, just classic writing and an unflinching honesty that is a joy to read. With such honesty, of course, you also forego a nice dose of Prozac come the last chapter - which is why those readers who demand a happy ending will always find Yates disappointing. His characters are not happy bunnies (but they are some of the most engaging miserable sods you'll ever meet) - and they get the endings they would in real life - deserved or otherwise.

Now, I really must dash - was just on my way to soak away one very hectic day in a bubbly tub - but couldn't resist trilling on (yet a-bloody-gain, sorry) about one of my most favourite writers. A big thank you for this thread, Mr Self. I owe you!
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Old 12th Mar 2005, 19:52   #3
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Cold Spring Harbor, despite its expected themes of the limitations of life and the impossibility of unadulterated happiness, feels like a five-star read. There's just an extraordinary purity and clarity about Yates's writing which is difficult to pin down: it's not showy or flowery, it isn't given wings by flights of unrestrained imagination, and there ain't many jokes. Honesty, as mentioned by Honey above, is probably the key.

So this is a period novel: published in 1986 but set in the late 1930s and early 1940s in New York state. Evan Shepard is a handsome young man with not many abilities other than his looks: he gets a local girl pregnant and has to marry her, which in traditional teen-marriage-in-kitchen-sink-drama style, doesn't work out. It's a measure of Yates's laconic skill that he despatches the entire relationship, from meeting to divorce, in six pages. Evan goes on to meet another girl, Rachel, whose mother is clearly another tragic older woman figure in the mould of Pookie from The Easter Parade (in other words, a thinly disguised version of Yates's own mother). And as with Pookie, Yates's descriptions of Gloria Drake sometimes cross the line from coolly unsentimental to downright cruel:

Quote:
Here she gave a little laughing shudder that was probably meant to be girlish and disarming, but all it did was call attention to how loose and ill-defined her lips were. When she laughed and shuddered that way, holding her shoulders high for emphasis, she looked like a shuddering clown.

[...]

She may not have been more than fifty, but there wasn't much left of whatever she'd had in the way in the way of looks. Her hair was a blend of faded yellow and light gray, as if dyed by many years of drifting cigarette smoke, and although you could say she'd kept her figure, it was such a frail, slack little figure that you couldn't picture it doing anything but sitting right here, on this coffee-stained sofa.
But Gloria is not alone in the book in being pathetic and frustrated and compromised. Far from it: as in Updike's Rabbit, Run, none of the families and couples in the book is happy. And Yates's knack for brevity comes into play again here, in the way he manages to cover so many different characters in a short - 178 page - novel. He stomps on them one by one like stepping stones across a river, pushing them down and moving on.

So another cheery volume from Yates, and another essential read. I only hope that the law of diminishing returns does not take full effect, with dwindling sales of his brilliantly gloomy volumes, before Methuen have reissued them all.
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Old 13th Mar 2005, 14:14   #4
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John said:

Quote:
And Yates's knack for brevity ...
A wonderful knack indeed - and one that explains his success as a short story writer, which is what he was, first and foremost, I think. It's funny, too, because while short story writers can and do make excellent novelists, many novelists cannot write great short fiction. But I'm sure it's largely Yates's ability to home in on the emotional crux of the matter and distill it into sharp pertinent detail that makes his writing so rewarding.

Tobias Wolff - another fine short story writer and much lauded here on Palimpsest - in a recent interview, said "There's a kind of stock repertoire that comes out of drama, mainly of gestures and actions that people perform in stories. You know: the mixing-of-drinks, the-crossing-of-rooms, the-lighting-of-cigarettes. What's wrong with them is they're essentially anonymous. They don't tell us that much. What you want is a gesture that tells you something particular. ..."

He's absolutely right, of course. And it's Yates's shunning of the general, his talent for noting the particular not the expected, that makes his characters so original - so mesmerically fully-fleshed. Reading those telling, often cruelly noted observations makes you want to chortle and punch the air for their brilliant depiction of human frailty. Here's an extract from Revolutionary Road where Yates's spotlight is mercilessly focused on Frank Wheeler, who, for all his fighting talk (and talk he certainly does!) is at heart, a loser; and one who in his darkest moments, knows it.

Quote:
Soon too - and this was the most encouraging sign of all - he began to be aware at odd moments that she was covertly watching him through a mist of romantic admiration.

These moments were not always quite spontaneous; as often as not they followed a subtle effort of vanity on his part, a form of masculine flirtation that was as skillful as any girl's. Walking toward or away from her across a restaurant floor, for example, he remembered always to do it in the old "terrifically sexy" way, and when they walked together he fell into another old habit of holding his head unnaturally erect and carrying his inside shoulder an inch or two higher than the other, to give himself more loftiness from where she clung athis arm. When he lit a cigarette in the dark he was careful to arrange his features in a virile frown before striking and cupping the flame (he knew, from having practiced this at the mirror of a blacked-out bathroom yeras ago, that it made a swift, intensely dramatic portrait), and he paid scrupulous attention to endless details: keeping his voice low and resonant, keeping his hair brushed and his bitten fingernails out of sight; being always the first one athletically up and out of bed in the morning, so that she might never see his face lying swollen and helpless in sleep.

Sometimes after a particularly conscious display of this kind, as when he found he had made all his molars ache by holding them clamped too long for an effect of grim-jawed determination by candlelight, he would feel a certain distaste with himself for having to resort to such methods - and, very obscurely, with her as well, for being so easily swayed by them. What kind of kid stuff was this?
As John and I have both said, much of Yates's work was taken directly from real life, and the extract above is based on Yates himself. Apparently, he loathed his baby-face features, his own soft, rather girlishly-lipped mouth, his large doe-eyed gaze; so much so, that for a while at least, he took to wearing a fedora tipped rakishily over one eye, a cigarette drooping from the corner of his mouth, in a bid to appear more mature, more overtly masculine. It was also an attempt to enact the role of hard-bitten, seen-it-all journalist/hack. Comical though it might have been, you can't help but admire him for his willingness to transpose his own frailties and sometimes faintly ridiculous behaviour on to his characters. But it's that willingness to nail the truth that gives his work its compelling honesty.

As for his work finding renewed favour, well, I would love to think it will, following Methuen's commendable gamble, but I have my doubts rather. The trouble is that too many of the book-buying public want the clichéd happy ending - no matter how contrived, or how wretchedly unlikely such an outcome would be. I know I shouldn't complain, fiction-reading should be a pleasure, and whether you like it or not (and I don't) for some the pleasure comes from having their stories nicely rounded off with a rainbow - however unrealistic. Others go for outright fantasy - a measured dose of escapism to avoid the sometimes rather grim realities of everyday living for a spell or two. But if you find the human condition fascinating, and like your fiction, not only beautifully crafted, but bound and spined with integrity- go read Richard Yates. You won't be disappointed.

(John ... do you think Methuen should be alerted to our valiant efforts to boost Richard Yates's book sales? Am thinking a percentage might be due ... :D )
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Old 20th Apr 2005, 12:41   #5
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I just wanted to add that I thought Revolutionary Road was brilliant and has flown into my all time top whatever list of best books.

It is however slightly depressing that I had never even heard of Richard Yates prior to reading this thread. I mean how is it that I have read Tony Parsons (I was young - what can I say) but nothing by Yates. The world is completely mad.
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Old 22nd Apr 2005, 22:15   #6
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Another convert .... YAY ! :D
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Old 9th Jun 2005, 22:16   #7
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I must have missed the above: although I knew you had read read Revolutionary Road this year, Jim, I had no idea (until seeing this just now) that it was following Honey's and my recommendations. Very pleased you liked it.

Anyway: Yates's latest reissue, Young Hearts Crying, has just come out so I bought it tonight. It has a different cover than the one above:



and that critical piece linked in my first message above says "The elegance and economy that distinguish his finest work are missing here." Well, no shit, what with Young Hearts Crying - at 422 pages - being longer than The Easter Parade and Cold Spring Harbor put together, and longer than Revolutionary Road too. Still critics "conceded that as a novelist, technically Yates had few peers and continued to be true to his own particular vision." Oh good - so no fart gags then? Further bulletins as events warrant.
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Old 10th Jun 2005, 18:00   #8
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Seems we think alike, Mr S - at the beginning of this week, by pure chance, I discovered Amazon offering A Good School, A Special Providence and Disturbing the Peace - all by the wonderful, irreplaceable Yates - so I ordered the lot. Will no doubt get around to acquiring Young Hearts Crying 'n all pretty soon. While those mentioned above are not without their critics - indeed, are generally considered to be lesser creations than the fabulous Revolutionary Road, so bedazzled am I by the fellow, by his own particular brand of economic yet unflinching realism, that I'd happily read a shopping list scribbled by the man and still manage to feel honoured and privileged. Which reminds me - have you tried some of his short stories, yet, John?
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Old 10th Jun 2005, 19:16   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Honey
have you tried some of his short stories, yet, John?
Er... up to a point, Lord Copper!
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Old 10th Jun 2005, 20:04   #10
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No?? NO?? Oh, Mr Self, we must remedy the situation at once. Just for me, pretty, pretty please, find a thirty-forty minute slot sometime this weekend and read the very first story from his collection - Doctor Jack-o'-Lantern. It's an absolute beaut - promise. Of course, you may find it's then impossible not to read another, and another - they're just so incredibly addictive; but if you are tempted to consume the lot, try to resist by limiting yourself to two at a time. They're so good that they should be treated like prize chocolates and partaken of in small doses rather than gorging yourself all at once. That said, sod it! Read as many as you have time for - piggery on such a literary feast is just sooooo much fun!
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