“In Yates country knowledge invariably ends in suffering, but none of his people are ever without hope—they dream and they want, they endure and they yearn.
In the beginning of things their eyes are as wide as dishes.
In the end, their longing will be the very knife that runs them through.”
– Richard Price, from his introduction to the Richard Yates Everyman’s Library edition
Rarely is it possible for fiction this night-haunted and tortured to have such ease and flow. But flow is what the writing of Richard Yates does, even though it may start off in social embarrassment and run through painful miscommunication and foolhardy self-delusion before ending in nearly catatonic despair. There is a pounding life and movement in his gloomy pages that helps stave off a reader’s sinking notion that things are going to turn out quite poorly indeed for all the sad suckers whose lives Yates is maneuvering with autobiographical clarity. It catches you up before smashing you down. (Don’t say you weren’t warned.)
It’s been said that Yates’ fiction—which he published in irregular spurts between 1960 and 1986 before the chronic smoker succumbed to emphysema in 1992—has taken on a certain samizdat quality over the years, being passed around from one carefully-chosen gimlet-eyed appreciator to another in a daisy chain of “You’ll understand this.” Due to that hushed and mysterious quality, one exacerbated by dim notions of the misunderstood artist (Yates died bitter, broke, and out-of-print), an unfortunate aura has developed around the man just as his work is creeping back into print. Some may be put off by the (no doubt exaggerated) legend of the tortured and forgotten genius, while others may just not want to be seen carrying around a movie tie-in paperback with Leonardo DiCaprio on the front cover.
Either way, people need not worry. To those with the first concern, let them be assured that Yates is absolutely every bit as good as his advance publicity. And those with the second can be mollified by the release earlier this year of a beautiful Everyman’s Library edition containing Yates’ two most popular novels (Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade) and a collection of his short stories (Eleven Kinds of Loneliness). The ashen introduction by Richard Price paints a caustic portrait of his onetime teacher Yates as the ruined mountain of a writer, hacking through four packs a day and battling off mental breakdowns while bemoaning his cruel, cruel fate. It’s a rough piece of work, but a nice jaw-socker to prepare you for what’s to follow.
In contrast to Price’s gutterpoet prose, the story that comes first in Revolutionary Road is a smoother affair, at least on the surface. Set in a Connecticut suburb during the mid-‘50s, the novel opens in mid-wound, right as the newly-launched community theater is going down in flames on opening night of their debut production: a butchered Petrified Forest. Afterward, would-be star April Wheeler and her husband Frank drive away, she in dull silence, he chatty and defensive. They’re one of those shining couples who land in suburbia from time to time, with surprise children, ideas about education and literature, and no idea how they got there but convinced (as others are, at first) of their innate superiority to their surroundings. Nevertheless, just a few pages in, their car is parked on the side of the road and the two are laying into each other like a sailor and bar-tramp at the end of a three-day bender.
It’s an excruciating battle, one that Yates tracks with alarmingly precise, knowing detail:
Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and harder into each other’s weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other’s strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint, and strike again. In the space of a gasp for breath it sent their memories racing back over the years for old weapons to rip the scabs off old wounds; it went on and on.
Following that, the novel is a breathless dash for the forgone conclusion, as Frank and April compete with the other for a chance at self-immolation. They circle back and forth around each other, looking for the ways in their own disappointments can be laid at the other’s feet, like so many dead birds dropped by a dog. At one time they were children of Manhattan, cruising parties in the Village and talking of big things, he a war veteran bursting with ideas from newly-minted GI Bill education and she a future actress who only wanted to know of things that were interesting. Yates flashes back to the Wheelers’ earlier years, when their sense of self-importance about their own uniqueness became hardened, right before an unexpected pregnancy pushed them to Connecticut, she into housewifery and he into a deadening copy-writing job for a land industrial firm, and their downfall.
In those sections, you can almost feel the writer’s lip curling with disdain—what keeps it from becoming simple cruelty is the clear fact of how close to home this all hits. Yates was a veteran who wrote for a monthly magazine put out by a business machine company and moved out to Connecticut at around the same time as the novel is set. This is territory he knows all too well, as is revealed in each scene’s effortlessly dark accuracy. He seems to hate these characters in a wholly tragic sense, for they are he.
The tragedy of Revolutionary Road is not based around what you would expect a postwar suburban satire to focus on. Yates is not indicting the soul-deadening aspects of cookie-cutter commuter neighborhoods, though they certainly seem prissy and prying little enclaves of forced gentility. The book is aimed at something more devastating and personal, namely the Wheelers’ hypocrisy and self-delusion, which damns them far more than supermarkets, highways, and Wonder Bread ever could. The two kick and claw at each other, bitter that their grown-up lives seem to be just as dreary as their parents’ and looking for someone to blame when in fact there was nobody who forced them into their current state.
It’s this heightened sense of interior drama (“It’s your very essence that’s being stifled here,” as April loudly declaims) that pushes the two into the crux of the novel’s drama: an ill-conceived plan to move on a whim to Paris, where April is convinced (by a magazine article no less) that she’ll be able to find a job that pays well enough for Frank to settle down and write that novel. The plan would be funny to contemplate if not for the devastating consequences that it brings about as Yates spins the Wheelers into a living limbo of their own creation.
While Revolutionary Road proved a brilliant but problematic film property in the hands of Sam Mendes, DiCaprio, and Kate Winslet—the critics who thought it too glossy for the dark subject matter missed the point—the second novel in this edition, 1976’s The Easter Parade would have been all too easy a thing to turn into film. One can imagine Robert Aldritch turning this bleak comedy of errors into another of his Grand Guignol bitchfests in which a pair of decaying, depressed sisters have at each other for two hours while their lives and relations slowly drift away.
The Easter Parade doesn’t hold nearly as high a place in the American literary pantheon these days as Revolutionary Road, but it was received much more positively at the time, though it’s difficult to see why. As with Yates’ debut, this novel holds little plot but for their march of its characters through all the stages of life’s disappointments and toward oblivion. The Grimes sisters, Sarah and Emily, are raised by their clueless mother in a dim and dirty apartment in the Village, where they inevitably pick up her bent for Blanche DuBois-like self-destruction.
Sarah initially seems the one to follow, with her bright looks and cheerful way with men. Emily appears a lost cause, haplessly losing her virginity to a man in the park one night and then stumbling into an editorial career and from one relationship to the next without hardly ever lifting her eyes to the horizon. Yates lays it all on the line for the reader when he shows Emily stopping crying after her father’s funeral once she realizes that the tears were “a lie”, that they were in fact “wholly for herself—for poor, sensitive Emily Grimes whom nobody understood, and who understood nothing.”
The promise that Sarah once held is, to nobody’s surprise by this point, mostly snuffed out once she marries an oafish drunk and disappears into a falling-down estate out on Long Island. Yates sticks with Emily through her glassy-eyed wanderings and affairs, again using her as little more than a gender-switched autobiographical front (failed writer, failed career, failed relationships) and a tool for pricking the narrative with the same sharp and caustically funny satire on sophisticate wannabes as Revolutionary Road. Yates’ style has become cleaner and clipped by the time of The Easter Parade, and while this novel’s story has more of a gallows reek to it, the prose sings with a professional clarity that sometimes eluded his early, knottier masterpiece.
Emily watches from afar as Sarah grinds into ruin, heading inexorably toward the same end as their mad mother: at the sprawling mental institution complex at Central Islip. The image Emily hangs on to after one visit is a simple but chilling one, twin smokestacks that she imagines to be the crematory where all the inmates ultimately end up. By the time Yates reaches his ending with Emily, the natural conclusion of all her bad decisions is so cruel that you almost want to start skipping lines, just to get it over with.
The law of diminishing returns applies unfortunately to the volume’s concluding batch of short stories, which are really 11 kinds of a bleak slog. Though in the two novels Yates was able to weave a bright sense of action and realism through their bleak happenings (lonely children, lonelier adults, sad lives the lot of them), in these short doses his grim tone becomes harder to bear. Much better, perhaps, to approach the stories first, in small bites, before heading off to the more rewarding canvases offered by his novels.
There are no real fade-outs in Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade, no drawing of the curtain for Yates’ characters. He seems driven to stay with them to the bitter conclusion, whatever it may be. This is fiction that follows its characters to the grave, with a sad and all-too-knowing cigarette-roughened chuckle.