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THE COLLECTED STORIES OF RICHA RD YATES
The Washington Post, April 22, 2001 pT02
Richard Yates was 35 years old when his first novel, Revolutionary Road, was published in 1961. It was a critical success, as were most of the eight other books he published before his death in 1992, but its sales were indifferent, as was also true of his subsequent books. Admired by many other writers, he never really connected with readers. In the literary community this is widely regarded as an injustice, one that the publication of his Collected Stories is meant -- or hoped -- to correct.
It is a thoroughly admirable enterprise, a reminder of what trade publishing at its best can be. To produce and distribute a volume as large as this is expensive, all the more so because of the advertising and promotional efforts that Holt is making on its behalf. Clearly this is being done not out of any anticipation of vast earnings -- there is, after all, nothing in Yates's publishing history to raise such expectations -- but because editors at Holt believe in Yates's work and want to give readers another opportunity to discover it. No one who cares for literature, who knows how uphill a struggle it usually is for serious American writers, can fail to be moved by this.
Now comes the hard part. When one considers how many mediocre and meretricious writers find great followings for shoddy and cynical work -- have you looked at the bestseller lists lately? -- then certainly it is a pity that a writer as earnest, dedicated and honest as Yates went unrewarded. But a clear-eyed reading of his work can leave no doubt that his actual achievement falls considerably short of his admirers' assessment of it. His thematic range was narrow, his tone was often slightly out of register, his use of dialect was appallingly clumsy, and he was never able to venture far beyond his own experience. There are things in his work to admire, but there is much else to regret.
Those words are written in something close to sorrow. Not merely would it give me great pleasure to help Book World's readers discover a worthy writer who had been unfairly neglected, but Yates wrote about a place I know well and, its many faults notwithstanding, care about deeply: the world of East Coast white Anglo-Saxon Protestants that previously had been explored by many of my favorite writers, among them Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John P. Marquand and John Cheever. It is a world that teeters now on the verge of extinction, so any writer who could help keep it alive -- in memory if not in fact -- would find a receptive reader in me.
Yates gets closest to justifying his admirers' praise in two of his novels, Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade (1976). The former is the story of a young married couple recently removed from New York City to the suburbs, where their dreams of happiness and success are gradually stifled and destroyed; the latter (reissued this spring in a Picador paperback) tells about the contrasting lives of two sisters, one who leads a semi-bohemian and rather promiscuous life in New York, one who is slipping into suburban malaise. Both books are bleak, but both retain the reader's interest and sympathy throughout. Still, re-reading them recently for the first time in many years, I was struck less by the acuity of their observations about American middle- and upper-middle-class life than by the tediousness and familiarity of them.
Still, it is easy to see why Yates is admired by certain of the literati. For as long as there have been suburbs and suburbanites, there have been writers to turn up their noses at them. Just as Sinclair Lewis made it fashionable to sneer at small-town and small-city America, so writers of our own time have little except contempt for what they see as the sterility of the suburbs -- a view given mass-market affirmation by the film "American Beauty" -- and the shallowness of those who live there. The "mundane existences" of these people, as Richard Russo writes in his introduction to this volume, are one-way tickets to nowhere. "Yates seems to understand as clearly as Fitzgerald," Russo writes, "that the cruelest promise of democracy is that anybody can be anything. All men may be created equal, but they become unequal in a heartbeat, and in these stories large dreams are often paired with mediocre talents."
That point is well taken, yet Yates is scarcely as sympathetic to his lonely dreamers as Russo and other admirers -- Richard Ford, Scott Spencer, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Stone -- would have us believe. Re-reading the two novels mentioned above, I was struck over and over again by how often what Yates clearly means to be an affectionate if ironic approach to his characters veers away into sarcasm and superciliousness. He can be gentle toward those whose experience mirrors his own -- field soldiers in World War II, tuberculosis patients in Veterans Administration hospitals -- but he can be so harsh toward his suburbanite upwardly mobile strivers (viz., Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road) that at times it is difficult to believe he likes them at all.
This problem is even more pronounced in the short stories. Loneliness and quiet desperation are everywhere. "Eddie wasn't in the bar when he arrived, which sharpened the edge of his loneliness"; "a sort of sad little game for lonely tourists"; "haunted and vulnerable and terribly dependent, trying to smile, a look that said Please don't leave me alone"; "after a couple of drinks she was willing to acknowledge the real nature of these evenings alone: she was waiting for the telephone to ring"; "I . . . met a girl named Eileen who turned out to be as lonely as I was, though she was better at concealing it"; "She had never been so lonely in her life"; et cetera. The difficulty is not that loneliness isn't real, in the suburbs or anywhere else, but that in these stories too often that's all there is.
The same goes for marital unhappiness. "Well," says a character in one of the previously uncollected stories, "but look: this happens all the time. Women get tired of men; men get tired of women. You can't go around letting your heart get broken over all the losers." Perhaps so, but Yates seems positively to delight in the fissures and fractures that the marriages in these stories inevitably and invariably suffer. This is the best his characters can hope for: "Through the difficulties of two more years there were times of peace, times of exultant companionship and other times of exasperation and bickering, or of silence; it all seemed to settle into what David called a good marriage." On the next page, of course, his wife announces that she's leaving -- "We haven't been all right for a long time and we aren't all right now and it isn't going to get any better" -- and goes off to join all the other Yates spouses, women and men alike, who find the reality of marriage far short of the dreams they brought to it.
Like loneliness, marital unhappiness is real, but it finally becomes banal when story after story yields nothing else. Even when, in a couple of cases, Yates permits husband and wife reconciliation of a sort, one senses he does so grudgingly. What he says of one character -- "Poor, lost, brave little man, dreaming his huge and unlikely dream" -- can be said of all. What matters is not that the man is "brave" -- Yates gives little evidence of actually believing this -- but that he is "little" and the fulfillment of his dream is "unlikely." His characters march out of the pages of books that were widely read when Yates was doing his apprenticeship -- "The Lonely Crowd"," The Organization Man", "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" -- and they rarely transcend stereotype.
Yates's stories, brought together for the first time in a single volume, underscore and amplify his limitations, because he plays the same tune over and over and over. Ten or so stories into the book, I felt trapped in a claustrophobic place where everything is bleak and introspective and devoid of hope. Happy endings weren't what I was looking for -- quite to the contrary -- but a sense of life's complexity and variety and nuance and depth and surprise. There is, alas, all too little of that here.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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