"If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies the tragedy." -Richard Yates
The novels of Richard Yates have recently attained the commercial level of respect that critics have long demanded. For over thirty years Yates published a series of devastating portraits of suburban anomie, artistic frustration, and men failing in every way at work, in love, inside themselves. Yates’ novels include Revolutionary Road (1961), A Special Providence (1969), Disturbing the Peace (1975), The Easter Parade (1976), A Good School (1978), Young Hearts Crying (1984), and Cold Spring Harbor (1986). To coast on Revolutionary Road’s success, his early stories were collected in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962); again in 1981, alongside the 20th anniversary of Revolutionary Road, a second collection of later stores appeared, Liars in Love (1981). Inexplicably, from the publication of his last novel in 1986, through his death in 1992, and the appearance of novelist Steward O’Nan’s Boston Review essay in 1999, all of his books fell out of print.*
Writers, particularly those participating in the new realism, those interested in the interior behind the façade of male confidence, those interested in the craft of simple but powerful prose…in short, some of the greatest late-20th century American novelists like Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, and others have long championed Yates’ work. And yet as O’Nan pointed out, the novels and stories were commercial failures when in print. And, as the work has recently returned to critical attention, many point out that each novel, from the first to the last, seemed to be a lesser work, that Yates could never repeat the accomplishment of Revolutionary Road and that he also tragically drank away any talent that he possessed.
I think, however, after recently reading his second-to-last novel, Young Hearts Crying, that this line of easy assessment is simply wrong. If works of the 1950s through the 1970s such as Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex (1949, but not available in English until 1953), Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (1970), the Australian Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch (1970), and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973), for example, were responsible for raising the consciousness of dissatisfied women throughout the post-industrial, post-WW2 societies of Europe and America, it is arguably a certainty that John Updike, Saul Bellow, Philip Roth, and Richard Yates were undertaking the same project for dissatisfied- and disoriented- men. Men may have held all the power in the years when Yates wrote, but, as anyone who watches Mad Men clearly understands, having that power did not necessarily make being a man easy. Frustrations with an artistic ambition despite the social pressures to enter into some stable, routine, uninteresting occupation predominate in Yates’ fiction. Men fail to sustain meaningful relationships with parents, siblings, children- and worst, with the women they love. The men in Yates’ novels never actually possess the confidence in their ability to successfully navigate modern America or to commit to their artistic ambitions, despite what they project outwardly to the world, to their neighbors, wives, coworkers.
Yates was not commercially successful. Perhaps each novel is not distinguished, one from another. Perhaps Yates could not rise above the competition, for certainly his themes and plots about suburban disenchantment were taken up by others, notably Updike. (And in the case of Updike’s Rabbit series, I confess, I think Updike does it with much greater skill and care.) Nonetheless, in the last ten years or so his reputation has recovered substantially. O’Nan prophetic lament in 1999 that something drastic, such as a substantial biography of Yates, a film treatment of a Yates novel, or the singular effort of some unknown, unforeseen wise publisher or editor, might resurrect the novelist from the literary death that results from falling out-of-print has now been realized on all counts. In 2001 Holt issued a collection of his complete short stories. Literary biographer Blake Bailey, who has recently topped some non-fiction best of 2009 lists for his more recent biography of Cheever, published a full scale study of Yates in 2003. David Sedaris included Yates in a 2005 anthology of short fiction, as did Richard Ford's 2007 New Granta collection (mentioned earlier this year). Filmmaker Sam Mendes, best known for his skewering black comedy about suburbia, American Beauty (1999) adapted Revolutionary Road for the big screen with Leo Dicaprio and Kate Winslet in 2008; the film was critically acclaimed, nominated for 3 Academy Awards, and widely talked about throughout 2009. These events brought Yates back into public view, particularly print reviews of the short story collection, the biography, and the widely viewed film. Based upon my anecdotal experiences scanning shelves at used bookshops, A LOT of people picked up Revolutionary Road and read it as a result of the film-related rerelease, but sadly the Yates resurgence might have stopped short at simply rereading his first novel.
In spring of 2006, after reading some similar plea for Yates’ reputation, or perhaps some contemporary novelists deep praise of Yates, likely the Wolff interview in Paris Review of 2004, I read Revolutionary Road, and like my first encounters with Updike or Roth, was completely unsettled by the treatment of the disintegrating Wheeler marriage. My natural instinct after such an experience then would be to pick up all his works, and slowly work my way forward. At the time, pre-Mendes film, I could only find his books second hand, and the next that I could find was his final novel, Cold Spring Harbor, which I read over winter break 2007. Next I found his second novel, A Special Providence, and the 2001 story collection, which I read over summer break 2008 and spring break 2009. After reading five of his nine books and having numerous conversations about Yates with friends, especially after the film’s wider release and critical success in early 2009, I took a short break. Always keeping my eye out, I eventually located copies of the rest of his novels, but until this fall had not revisited them.
Young Hearts Crying, although written in the early 1980s, returns to the era in which all of Yates’ work is located- the immediate decades post-WW2- and revolves around the same type of characters featured in the other novels I have read. Army Air Force Veteran and aspiring poet Michael Davenport and his wealthy and beautiful wife, aspiring actress Lucy Blaine Davenport struggle to found a nuclear family, sustain their love amid the pressures of work and parenting, and ultimately fail as Michael seeks recognition and success for his writing without relying on the enormous wealth that Lucy’s parents provide. The privation and independence from refusing Lucy’s money will be the foundation for Michael’s breakthrough as a real poet, and his work won’t be the product of a leisured effete. The Davenports- through Michael’s artistic ambitions and Lucy’s upper class notions about patronage- seek a community of artists in the late 1940s Village scene but through the 1950s opt, as so many young parents do, to leave behind the world of art for the suburbs, for a healthy place to raise their daughter, for a routine commercial writing job for Michael. And there, not surprisingly, is sown the beginning of their disappointment, resentment, and marital failure. Unlike Revolutionary Road, however, the novel then divides as the separated couple survives the 1950s, the 1960s, the 1970s, into a long, old age. Separate, Lucy pathetically fails at any semblance of independent success in a series of artistic attempts from community theater, to creative story writing, to painting, until realizing that she is better off simply living on her wealth and raising, or more realistically failing to raise, her daughter. The daughter, in a miserable, broken home during the turbulent 1960s not surprisingly turns to promiscuity, drugs, and homelessness while Michael binge drinks, publishes clearly mediocre verse, becomes a serial womanizer, a professor of creative writing, and a not infrequent mental patient- apparently pretty autobiographical stuff for Yates. Although the novel might, on the surface, hew a little to closely to Revolutionary Road, I find Yates’ decision to attend to the lifelong arc of loneliness a tremendous artistic achievement. I also find his ability to balance his sympathy and attention between two characters- his ability to avoid sympathizing too much or villainzing too much one of the pair- to be remarkable, although admittedly this is demonstrated in the Wheeler’s of Revolutionary Road (though less so the Mendes film , in which Winslet’s April is far more victim than in the novel) and in the mother and son pair of A Special Providence.
With all this attention- the biography, the film, the re-release of his novels- it’s safe to say that the pleas of the community of writers for a rejuvenation of Yates’ reputation have been satisfied. I can only urge that serious readers get to the library or store and start reading these novels again. They’ve been on shelves for a couple years now but aside from the occasional discussion of the film, I have yet to run into someone of my acquaintance who has given Yates the attention the his work deserves.
*O’Nan himself has published several novels, some quite good including his first, Snow Angels (1994), Wish You Were Here (2002), The Night Country (2003), Last Night at the Lobster (2007) among many others.