Just like Mother

Theo Tait

  • Collected Stories by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 474 pp, £17.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 413 77125 3
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 346 pp, £6.99, February 2001, ISBN 0 413 75710 2
  • The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 226 pp, £10.00, January 2003, ISBN 0 413 77202 0

Richard Yates faced some formidable obstacles: a broken home, tuberculosis, rampant alcoholism, divorce (twice), lack of recognition and manic depression – a combination that sent him, as he put it, ‘in and out of bughouses’. Even his triumphs seemed only to cause further distress. Though his first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), was a critical success, sales were wretched, and he spent most of his working life in its shadow. He wrote screenplays in Hollywood, but none of his scripts was ever produced. He worked as a speech-writer for Robert Kennedy, a career cut short by JFK’s assassination. Recently, there has been a considerable resurgence of interest in his writing, previously limited to a small but dedicated following among writers such as Richard Ford, Stewart O’Nan and Michael Chabon. This came ten years too late for Yates, who died of emphysema and complications following minor surgery in 1992. His fiction is closely modelled on his own experiences and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is a miserable place. The Easter Parade (1976) begins: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed as if the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ This line could be a motto for his work, which uses unremarkable language to great effect – here registering a disappointment so pervasive that even its expression is bathetic.

Yates’s difficult childhood, his time as a soldier during World War Two, his painful personal and professional life after the war, his alcoholism, are all revisited obsessively in his fiction. Frank Wheeler in Revolutionary Road is a young veteran whose high hopes for the future dissolve into suburban drudgery and an unhappy marriage. Robert Prentice in A Special Providence (1969) fights desultorily in the war, and just as ineffectually against his damaging upbringing. The short story ‘Builders’ features Prentice after the war, now a struggling writer, unhappily married. Michael Davenport in Young Hearts Crying (1984) is an intensely ambitious young poet, unhappily married, who served in the Air Force at the end of the war, and hates his job. In The Easter Parade, one of Emily Grimes’s unhappy relationships is with Jack Flanders, a divorced writer who served in the war and is unable to repeat the success of his first book. Yates sent his soul out into the world in rather flimsy disguises.

The Collected Stories were written between the end of the war and 1981. Although they feature a wide variety of characters and settings, these stories, like the rest of Yates’s writing, clearly represent the fragments of a single spiritual autobiography, even when they aren’t dealing with blatant authorial alter egos. Some, usually set during the Depression, describe growing up in a broken home, isolated and disorientated. There are the stories of the 1940s: brief and bewildering wartime adventures followed by the long anticlimax of the returning veteran, and the melancholy half-life of the TB ward. These shade into the unhappy husbands of the 1950s and 1960s, with their deadening but precarious white-collar jobs, and their drinking problems. The few excursions away from these areas – there are stories set in Hollywood, and stories about political speech-writing – have biographical explanations.

Like many writers, Yates felt compelled to rewrite traumatic experiences. What is unusual and dismaying in his work is the compulsion to repeat them again and again, in strikingly similar terms. If you read his fiction as a whole, these repetitions become very clear: not just the broad scenarios and preoccupations, but the small touches – a character biting his fist in misery; badly applied lipstick; grease on the face. His ability to invest even these relatively innocuous things with a tinge of primal horror is quite startling. But the most conspicuous example of this tendency is the ghastly, scarifying mother figure that stalks his fiction. (His own mother was a failed sculptor, who divorced his father when Richard was three, and restlessly moved her two children around the New York area.) There are at least five of these women in his work, almost indistinguishable from each other: Yates’s unhappy families are unhappy in very similar ways. This nightmarish mother condemns her family to a dingy bohemian lifestyle, and a home that ‘smelled of mildew and cat droppings and plastilene, with statuary instead of a car in the garage’. She inflicts all manner of psychological torments on her hapless children; she drinks too much; she flirts, most inappropriately, with married acquaintances; she deludes herself on a grand scale, and rounds shrieking on anyone who attempts to disillusion her. If necessary, she will fake a fit to make a point. In one memorable incarnation, she gets drunk at a party and deposits a ‘slick mouthful of puke’ on her son’s pillow. On two separate fictional outings, again under the influence, she unwittingly reveals her underwear to the assembled merrymakers.

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