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.

This autobiographical strain accounts both for the visceral immediacy of Yates’s writing, and for some of its limitations. Read in isolation, many of these powerful stories justify the comparisons made by his admirers: most pertinently, to John Cheever and Raymond Carver (Yates falls somewhere in between). But when Yates’s stories are encountered en masse – this new edition brings together his two collections and nine previously uncollected pieces – the uniformity of experience described begins to chafe, and his limited repertoire of stylistic gestures becomes apparent. There is the habitual down-sweep of the first sentence: ‘Nothing ever seemed to go right for the 57th Division’; ‘Nobody had much respect for The Labor Leader’; ‘In the spring of the sophomore year when she was 20, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him any more.’ There is the preoccupation with certain types of failure and humiliation; his stories return to a certain type of loser. Walter Henderson, the eponymous ‘Glutton for Punishment’, is the archetypal Yates hero. His wife gradually comes to realise that she is ‘dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse’. The casual, matter-of-fact tone of the opening often gives way to something more brutal. Yates likes to sign off with a slap in the face: ‘And when the sobs finally begin they are long, scalding ones, the kind that come again and again.’ Or just: ‘“Will you shut up? Will you please for god’s sake shut up?”’

The volume ends on an uplifting note, a strange thing in a work devoted, in the main, to dysfunctional families, demoralised office workers, second-rate artists, bad marriages, ill-health and shabby apartments. The last story, ‘A Convalescent Ego’, concerns a penniless TB patient returning home to a marriage under strain. The atmosphere of looming domestic disaster is scrupulously observed, as the man breaks a new cup and imagines, in highly convincing detail, the various possible arguments that will follow when his harassed wife returns home. Against the run of play, she overlooks his accident, all love and understanding. The narrator concludes: ‘This was the one thing he hadn’t figured on, in all his plans – the one slim chance he had overlooked completely.’ The banality of the prose, the failure of this line as a resolution, give the definite sense of a writer fighting his own gifts and instincts. Yates’s expertise is in pain and humiliation. There are some early, Sherwood Anderson-inflected stories in which these feelings are sympathetically observed, but except for the occasional, isolated outbreak of mildness, the only alternatives the later work offers are agonising pain, numbing pain or pain shouldered with bitter irony.

Which brings us to the areas in which Yates excels. He has two great technical gifts. First, for vivid drama: realistic narrative and dialogue that is both crisp and rich. And second, for direct, uncluttered eloquence: a prose of great clarity and perceptiveness. When these work together – usually at a moment of collapse – the effect is shattering. Michael Chabon seems to have this in mind when he says of the short stories: ‘Was there ever a writer who saw so clearly and depicted so faithfully the cracks in this broken world?’ I would put it differently: Yates has an evil genius for the rapier moment, the point at which unease solidifies into tangible horror, when the worst suspicions are confirmed. There are some unforgettable incidents in this collection: when the raffish Wasp viciously pulls rank on the black pianist; when the strange, lonely little boy rewards his teacher’s kindness by drawing an obscene caricature of her on the wall; when the girl from the typing pool sees that her impending marriage will be a passionless compromise; when the alcoholic single mother, realising that her Jewish neighbour despises her, unleashes an anti-semitic tirade. With Revolutionary Road, many of his contemporaries – including Kurt Vonnegut and William Styron – felt that he did something comparable for an entire generation; that he saw the cracks in the 1950s.

In 1956, William H. Whyte Jr, a Fortune magazine journalist and Max Weber fan, published The Organisation Man, his bestselling book of social criticism. It describes America’s postwar managerial caste, made up, typically, of young veterans who had been put through college on the GI Bill, and graduated to jobs in large organisations from IBM to the FBI and the church. These men would marry and multiply and, in retrospect, provide the classic image of the 1950s nuclear family. But they were essentially rootless: they had been moved away from their home-towns by the Armed Forces, and were then dropped wherever their behemoth employers saw fit. Whyte suggests that cohesion was provided by what he calls ‘the social ethic’: conformity, stemming from quasi-military discipline, held the individual hostage to the group and its opinions. Whyte follows Organisation Man back to his habitat, ‘the new suburbia’ and the ‘package villages’. There, ‘modal man’, a ‘25-to-35-year-old white-collar organisation man with a wife, a salary between $6000 and $7000, one child, and another on the way’, lives in his new ranch-type house, drives his Buick Special, socialises furiously with other modal couples, and attempts to bring his children up surrounded by the best of city and country life. This is Sinclair Lewis’s respectable, stultifying provincial America – ‘the contentment of the quiet dead’; ‘dullness made god’ – mass-produced, and grown raucous of a weekend.

John Cheever visited the new suburbia briefly in The Wapshot Chronicle (1957). Newlyweds Coverly and Betsey move into Circle K of Remsen Park, a ‘community of four thousand identical houses’ which ‘could not be criticised as a town or city’, built to service a rocket-launching station. Lonely in this stark geometric world, the Wapshots strike up a friendship with the Tellermans. The men talk about cars, the women talk about curtains; they all get drunk; Coverly finds Mr Tellerman tearing Betsey’s dress in the kitchen; he punches him; Mr Tellerman lies on the floor, explaining that he doesn’t think he can stand it any more. Soon after that, the Tellermans fail to invite the Wapshots to dinner. Betsey decides that ‘all her travels and friends were nothing and everything was nothing’; she has a miscarriage, and leaves her husband. Here is the postwar suburban novel sketched out in chilling miniature: a comedy of manners, radically unbalanced by bad faith and anomie. Its motifs are drink, infidelity, socialising as an inadequate substitute for something more meaningful, boredom and dissatisfaction verging on insanity. These features survive Cheever’s move upmarket to the cultured, moneyed realms of Shady Hill and Bullet Park. They are the staples for John Updike in tennis-and-adultery mode: as they are for Rick Moody in The Ice Storm, and even, in a modified form, for Don DeLillo in White Noise. But it was Richard Yates who followed the nightmare of Remsen Park to its logical conclusion: Revolutionary Road is the tragedy of Organisation Man.

In Yates’s novel, the man is Frank Wheeler, first glimpsed back in the Connecticut commuter belt after another day at what he likes to call ‘the dullest job you can possibly imagine’, watching April, his wife, play the lead in the first performance of an amateur dramatic society’s new play. The ‘brave idea’ of a ‘really good community theatre, right here, among themselves’, is one of several that briefly, deceptively, inspire the Wheelers. April’s initially promising performance turns out to be a disaster, and Yates reflects on Frank’s fond hopes for the enterprise:

Nowhere in these plans had he foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl he hadn’t seen in years, a girl whose every glance and gesture could make his throat fill up with longing . . . and that before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile in the curtain call was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.

After the play, Frank and April have a violent argument, the first of many, rendered with fearsome accuracy.

The Wheelers are tyrannised by a world of Bakelite niceness – harassed by interfering suburbanites, ground down by boring jobs, all at sea in a culture given over to identikit pastel houses, candy-coloured cars and television comedy. April proposes that the family move to Paris, so that Frank – who had ‘hardly ever entertained a doubt of his own exceptional merit’ – can ‘find himself’. But Frank loses his nerve, and opts instead to continue writing inane copy for Knox Business Machines, while conducting a joyless affair with an office girl. Yates explained in an interview that he felt ‘our best and bravest revolutionary spirit had come to something very much like a dead end in the 1950s.’ And, to some extent, Revolutionary Road reflects this familiar vein of criticism. Frank Wheeler’s ultimate fate approaches Norman Mailer’s description, in Advertisements for Myself, of the man subdued by ‘this most subtle and dear and totalitarian time, politely called the time of conformity’, who is jailed in ‘the prison air of other people’s habits, other people’s defeats’, and languishes in ‘quiet desperation and muted icy self-destroying rage’.

But Yates reserves his special scorn for attempts to transcend this environment. Mailer’s terms may have been tough, but at least he offered 1950s man some alternatives: he must be hip or square, ‘with it’ or ‘doomed not to swing’. For Frank, lifestyle protest is not an option. His cellmate at work lives what appears to be an F. Scott Fitzgerald life, dissipated but attractive, sinking endless martinis with his heiress wife and friends just in from the Bahamas. Then Frank goes to this man’s home and sees the truth: the wife is ‘a sodden, ageing woman with lips forever painted in the petulant cupid’s bow of her youth, whose every whining intonation showed how deeply she blamed’ her husband for ‘allowing the world to collapse’. In his teens, Frank had wanted to go out on the road, Kerouac-style. He tells a fat boy named Krebs of his plan; Krebs calls him a jerk, and asks: ‘Where do you get these weird ideas, anyway? The movies or something?’ Frank, paralysed by Krebs’s scorn, gives up on the idea. As for Paris – he went there as a soldier, and it failed to live up to the expectations aroused by The Sun Also Rises. The French were distant and hostile: ‘he had ended up drunk and puking over the tailgate of the truck that bore him jolting back into the Army.’ So Frank stays home, using April’s unwanted pregnancy as an excuse to remain in America.

The book is structured around a series of similar episodes, each profoundly disappointing, each following the same pattern. Hope and happiness are there to provide proleptic irony: to be mocked by the damp underwear of the miserable present. For Cheever or Updike, the details of the world offer at least some form of wonder or consolation. With Yates, each observation, each sentence, further confirms his characters’ doom. He is most scathing of all about the Wheelers’ attempts at dissent. The two of them complain incessantly about ‘having to live among all these damn suburban types’. With friends, they discuss the ‘elusive but endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, or American Society Today’; clippings from the Observer or the Manchester Guardian ‘would be produced and read aloud, to slow and respectful nods’. Yet Frank, who once drew great sustenance from his sense of being ‘painfully alive in a drugged and dying culture’, comes to realise, with mounting dismay, that his stinging criticisms of contemporary life no longer impress his friends. As he starts to resemble the objects of his criticism, his stance is revealed as a cliché, another empty form of conformity. The narrator frames him, from the start, in a way that reinforces this sense. He is described as having ‘the kind of unemphatic good looks that an advertising photographer might use to portray the discerning consumer of well-made but inexpensive merchandise (Why Pay More?)’. Everything is a pose, traceable to some deception or fad or movie or popular song. The Wheelers are caught like April on the stage, alternating ‘between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility’.

All the characters in Revolutionary Road find themselves down this blind alley. They are either defined by conformity, or lacerated by failed attempts to escape it, haunted by ‘bright, foolish visions’ of ‘a world that could and should have been’. The novel often has a polemic bitterness – but polemic usually has a target, and Yates’s disapproval is universal. As a panorama of pain and unhappiness, his novel rivals Miss Lonelyhearts, with the important difference that it never erupts into gleeful grotesquerie. Reading the novel is a mirthless experience: it is satire shorn of humour and excess. The Wheelers’ marriage follows the trajectory of Tender Is the Night, but without the glamour or the poetry. So the reader is denied comedy’s critical distance and sense of release; the novel is a reminder of how enjoyable and cathartic tragedy usually is.

Though written fifteen years later, The Easter Parade embodies the same principles as Revolutionary Road. The scheme of the book, as of most of Yates’s work, is simple. The title refers to a picture taken of lovely young Sarah Grimes and her dashing fiancé, fresh from his English public school, with Laurence Olivier looks and P.G. Wodehouse affectations. As it turns out, he is a bigoted wife-beater, who never even makes it into middle management. Like her mother, Pookie, Sarah turns to drink and self-delusion. Her sister, Emily, meanwhile, wins a scholarship to Barnard, and embarks on a career in advertising. She is admired by her family as a free spirit and a feminist pioneer. She is, in fact, a miserable and agonisingly lonely alcoholic.

The style of The Easter Parade is a little more detached and the book is funnier than Yates’s earlier work, occasionally opening up a satirical distance between the authorial voice and the characters:

Esther Grimes, or Pookie, was a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called ‘flair’. She pored over fashion magazines, dressed tastefully and tried many ways of fixing her hair, but her eyes remained bewildered and she never quite learned to keep her lipstick within the borders of her mouth, which gave her an air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty. She found more flair among rich people than in the middle class, and so she aspired to the attitudes and mannerisms of wealth in raising her daughters. She always sought ‘nice’ communities to live in, whether she could afford them or not, and she tried to be strict on matters of decorum.

On the whole, though, The Easter Parade is a theatre of unrelieved humiliation, disappointment and pain. Pookie ends her days in an asylum; Sarah is physically dismantled by her husband; Emily’s life is a chain of sordid affairs, culminating in an exclusive, long-term relationship with booze. Though executed with considerable inventiveness and insight, a numb blankness dominates this book, as it does Yates’s others. On learning that her father has died, ‘Emily sat down in a creaking straight chair with her hands in her lap and she would always remember that on first hearing the news she felt nothing at all.’

Again, there is no outlet, either for the reader or for the characters. Despite the violence and the squalor, there is no one to blame: a point made by the deliriously funny final scene, when Emily turns viciously on her charming nephew, the novel’s only positive character. The villain of the piece is delusion and dishonesty – vapid, commonplace self-deception. ‘Pookie said: “Isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really very nice, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living-room in attitudes of forced conviviality.’ ‘It’s a marriage. If you want to stay married you learn to put up with things,’ Sarah explains to her sister after another vicious beating. Unlike Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade does not attempt to analyse society. It is marked by an inward turn, dominated by a gloomy biological determinism about alcoholism and mental illness – the sickening realisation, often hanging in the air for Yates’s characters, that they are, in the end, just like mother.

The perspective that Yates offers is depressive, in the clinical sense: an emotional state characterised by feelings of dejection, lack of worth and, most of all, hopelessness. This is, I think, why his readership has always been small: very few people enjoy reading about a world washed clean of meaningful aspiration. His characters are doomed to make mistakes, and learn nothing, and repeat them. His books deny the usual satisfactions of reading sad or savage stories. And the fact that his characters are so often writers, of one kind or another, makes it clear that recording the misery, and rerecording it, brings no relief.

The young writers of the 1960s, looking at this kind of writing, probably saw it as a dead end, literature exhausted of possibilities. And to a certain extent it is. Yates writes to a reductive scheme, notwithstanding his gift for creating realistic texture – what Richard Ford’s introduction to Revolutionary Road calls a ‘luminous particularity’. Ultimately, this limits the depth of his characterisation, and his overall achievement. But it does not detract from the intensity of his two outstanding novels and the better stories. His persuasive rhetoric, dramatic skill and psychological acuity make his way of seeing the world – at least temporarily – all but irresistible. When you read about his miserable authors it is very hard to see writing as anything other than the aimless compulsion of deluded, inadequate people in dingy rooms. Decades later, his jaundiced versions of pointless office life and domestic conflict still resonate and disturb. There can be few writers with a comparable power to depress.