Richard Yates

Richard Yates

All of Richard Yates’s books fell out of print after his death and interest in his work was not renewed until the 2008 film of Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Titanic duo Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.  And yet, his books continue to face obscurity as they fail to attract new readers.  While it is true that his stories are sometimes viewed as unfulfilling or “depressing,” they have an uncompromising, courageous ability to depict where America took a wrong turn and the citizens who continue to pay the price.  Honestly cynical, but never toward his own characters, Richard Yates is an underrated writer of the 20th century.

Revolutionary Road, Yates’s first novel and arguably his finest, depicts a young American couple who decide to move from the suburbs to Paris to escape the “hopeless, emptiness of it all.”  A true tragedy, the characters’ downfall is motivated by both external circumstances and their own actions.  When the young man receives a promotion in a company he hates, an opportunity to follow in his father’s footsteps, he treats it initially as a joke.  But after his wife becomes pregnant for a third time, he begins to buy back, against his better judgment, into the so-called American Dream. 

In A Special Providence, Yates follows a clinging, neurotic mother and a self-conscious, awkward son as they go from one bad living situation to another, existing beyond their means, as she pursues a career as a sculptress.  Growing up without a father, the son must learn how to be a man when he is drafted to fight in a war he is completely unprepared for.  In part a coming-of-age story and in part an indirect commentary of a society headed toward self-destruction.  Yates captures the reality of living in an unconscious state of fear, for both the mother and the son.

The Easter Parade follows two sisters throughout their lives, each choosing radically different paths, and yet, both reacting to an atypical childhood that would forever shape their ends.  A story of high ideals and bitter disappointments, Yates contrasts one sister’s unfortunate marriage and life of compromise with the other sister’s fierce individuality and sexual freedom, resulting, in both cases, in alienation and loneliness.  A poignant, insightful, extremely honest look at the role of women in a society that presents few socially acceptable options.  Alcohol and denial create a backdrop for these tragic characters whose only eventual link to the past is a forgotten, insignificant photograph.

In Young Hearts Crying, a young man marries a girl, only to discover afterwards that she’s a millionairess.  Feeling his manhood threatened, he refuses to live on her money, determined to make his living the old-fashioned way.  Seen at first as a noble gesture, his decision becomes more baffling as he continues to work in a job he hates, drinking to excess, and failing to become the writer he dreams of being.  The couple eventually part and the novel follows each of their stories to their inevitable, unexpected conclusions.  Or does it?  Richard Yates focuses on the ambiguity of human experience, neither condemning nor sympathizing, but rather giving us an inside view of people who want more out of life but don’t know where to find it.

A Good School is an entertaining novel about a young man in an exclusive prep school that is rapidly going out of business.  At first awkward and shy, the boy begins to blossom as editor of the school newspaper.  Easy to relate to and fun to read, Yates understands the pains and pleasures of adolescence on an extremely truthful level.  Primarily about identity, this book depicts a character who is trying to discover himself (sexually and otherwise) while often pretending to be like others.  As usual, a harsh, indirect critique of American society is in the background, this time through the metaphorical use of an insulated world that has lost its significance.

Cold Spring Harbor is another of Yates’s books about unfulfilled lives and compromised dreams.  A young man, the son of an Army captain, is rejected from the service for medical reasons.  Though he aspires to become a mechanical engineer, he settles for marrying young and working in a factory.  The novel shifts points of view, from the boy’s father to the family of the second girl he marries, after divorcing the first.  By now, a clear autobiographical streak is apparent throughout all of Yates’s writing, including similar storylines.  Rather than limiting his scope, however, this provides a richness and depth of understanding, and perhaps a modicum of pity, that might otherwise remain absent.  As in all of Yates’ novels, the element of tragedy is present, but never in the form one would expect.

Disturbing the Peace is a novel about the line between alcoholism and insanity, set against the backdrop of a society that holds a limited definition of both.  The book begins with a husband afraid to go home because of what he might do to his wife, then leads to a drinking binge that ends him up in Bellevue.  After meeting a woman of means, however, he has the idea of turning the story of his incarceration into a film.  Together they make the “art” film on 16mm, but soon their ambitions lean toward Hollywood.  Alcoholism continues to be an obstacle, however, and the man succumbs to occasional bouts of madness.  Yates raises the question of what it means to be insane in a society whose values have all but disappeared.

The 2001 release of The Collected Short Stories of Richard Yates, combines two collections, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love.  As with the novels, Yates depicts the lost souls of postwar America, who attempt through various methods (psychology, escapism, delusions of grandeur, illusions of love, etc.) to escape the sudden soullessness of a society that is apparently thriving.  Saying Goodbye to Sally sticks out in particular; a story about a writer trying and failing to write like Hemingway and make it in Hollywood.

Aren Haun

Quick film review: The Wife

Warning: contains spoilers

A man receives the Nobel Prize for Literature, while in fact it’s his wife who is the real genius.  A terrific performance by Glenn Close, but essentially a straightforward story.  Or is it?  The first realization is that the real “wife” of the story is not in fact Glenn Close’s character, but Jonathan Pryce’s.  Through an agreement, Jonathan Pryce (Joe) becomes the editor in their partnership, while Glenn Close (Joan) is the actual writer.  At one point, Joan says to the biographer, played by Christian Slater, “Don’t paint me as a victim.  I’m much more interesting than that.”  The context of the story makes a feminist statement: if Joan publishes as a woman, her work will very likely end in obscurity.  By using her husband’s name and, possibly, ideas, her work goes on to win the Nobel Prize.  Would this have ever happened if she had written under her own name?  Probably not.  But what was the price?  The irony is that Joan chose this partnership.  If you look at the story from Joe’s perspective, while Joan is sitting at the typewriter in a closed room eight hours a day, he’s taking care of the kids, making dinner, doing laundry, etc.  He is also having affairs.  There are a couple of hilarious moments in the film when Jonathan Pryce sounds just like a stereotypical neglected housewife, including sharing a recipe with the king of Sweden.  Looking at the structure of the film, I was reminded of Macbeth, which I believe was intentional.  Joan, like Lady Macbeth, is ambitious, but knows she can never achieve the crown on her own.  So she puts her husband up to it and he goes along with the plan.  When, in the film, the king asks Joan what she does, she replies, “I’m a king maker.”  In the end, both Joan and Joe are doomed to fate, which was predetermined by their actions, turning the structure into a perfect tragedy.  Joe pays the ultimate price with his life, giving himself a heart attack.  Joan suffers the loss of the only person in the world who understands her.  In the end, all that lives on is the work itself, which is what Joan sacrificed everything for.  The screenplay is by Jane Anderson, a wonderful playwright.  I recently saw her play, Mother of the Maid, at the Public Theater, another pairing with Glenn Close, in a story about the mother of Joan of Arc.  I have not yet read the book that inspired the film by Meg Wolitzer, but there is clearly much more to The Wife than might seem at first glance.