Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Richard Yates

Richard Yates was acclaimed as one of the most powerful, compassionate and accomplished writers of America's post-war generation. Whether addressing the smothered desire of suburban housewives, the white-collar despair of Manhattan office workers or the heartbreak of a single mother with artistic pretensions, Yates ruthlessly examines the hopes and disappointments of ordinary people with empathy and humour.
Born in Yonkers, New York, Yates came from an unstable home. His parents divorced when he was three and much of his childhood was spent in many different towns and residences. Yates first became interested in journalism and writing while attending Avon Old Farms School in Avon, Connecticut. After leaving Avon, Yates joined the Army, serving in France and Germany during World War II. By the middle of 1946, he was back in New York. Upon his return to New York he worked as a journalist, freelance ghost writer (briefly writing speeches for Attorney General Robert Kennedy) and publicity writer for Remington Rand Corporation. His career as a novelist began in 1961 with the publication of the widely heralded Revolutionary Road.

First edition of Revolutionary Road
From richardyates.org

First edition of Revolutionary Road (back cover)
From richardyates.org

From the moment of its publication in 1961, Revolutionary Road was hailed as a masterpiece of realistic fiction and as the most evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs. It's the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a bright, beautiful, and talented couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. With heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity, Richard Yates shows how Frank and April mortgage their spiritual birthright, betraying not only each other, but their best selves.
This is a story of middle-class suburban angst. Frank and April Wheeler are a 29-year-old couple but seem much older: they are settled and familied, set up for the long slide to the grave. This being the 50s, he works at something in emergent technologies and she looks after the house. But they have, as the psychiatrists say, some insight into their condition and they decide early on that they will pack up and leave the suburban dream and go and live in Europe, where Frank will "find himself" and write and paint and be the general flaneur, and April will work to keep the family. Whether you consider them naive or admirably ambitious, it will not be ruining the book to tell you that they do not make it to Europe. They may not even make it into their thirties together. The point of the book is not finding this out (though there are entirely surprising and satisfying plot developments along the way) but finding out how and why.
The best aspects of the book are the secondary characters, like John Givings, the "mentally ill" boy who naturally is the only one who talks sense most of the time; Frank's mistress, the unfortunately named Maureen Grube; and the Wheelers' best friends the Campbells, whose liking for Frank and April is only a paper-slice away from scorn and dismissal. The author, Richard Yates, also has a habit of opening chapters with blisteringly brilliant short narrative or descriptive passages, which lead into the detailed events and lend each chapter an individuality and sense of being a discrete scene, only impressionistically connected to the ones before and after.
And best of all, Yates is to be commended for not letting sentimentality or the desire for a happy ending get in the way of his vision of the book; while until at least halfway through the novel things seem still to be going pretty well for the Wheelers, you can rest assured that the ending will be unflinchingly bleak and leave no room for optimism or complacency. Revolutionary indeed.


Introduction: Secret Hearts by Richard Russo

Doctor Jack-o'-Lantern
The Best of Everything
Jody Rolled the Bones
No Pain Whatsoever
A Glutton for Punishment
A Wrestler with Sharks
Fun with a Stranger
The B.A.R. Man
A Really Good Jazz Piano
Out with the Old

Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired
A Natural Girl
Trying Out for the Race
Liars in Love
A Compassionate Leave
Regards at Home
Saying Goodbye to Sally

The Canal
A Clinical Romance
Bells in the Moming
Evening on the Cote d'Azur
A Private Possession
The Comptroller and the Wild Wind
A Last Fling, Like
A Convalescent Ego

The author of eight novels ("Easter Parade," "Revolutionary Road") and two collections of short stories ("Liars in Love," "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness") was critically praised during his lifetime, and regularly published in major literary publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire and Ploughshares. Still, Yates never achieved a major readership, and he took it hard — gaining a reputation as a sweet man quietly killing himself with drink, until he did indeed pass away in 1992 at the age of 66.
But then, in January 2001, Yates achieved what was, during his lifetime, every fiction writer's dream: the publication of one of his stories in the New Yorker, the magazine that had rejected his work when it was new.
Well, as with seemingly everything else that appears in that magazine nowadays, the story was actually serialized from a book due out soon afterwards, a collected works — another honor that escaped him while he was still around — called "The Collected Stories of Richard Yates" (Holt)…..
A group of famous writers has volunteered to help the publisher promote the book by giving an "author's tour" — Jayne Ann Phillips, Richard Bausch, Ethan Canin, Michael Chabon, Tobias Wolff, and others will be giving readings of Yates' work around the country…..
(Dennis Loy Johnson at MOBYlives)

A GOOD SCHOOL (1978) front cover
From richardyates.org

A GOOD SCHOOL (1978) back cover
From richardyates.org

Richard Yates' books were near-universally well reviewed during his lifetime, and yet he never sold more than 12,000 copies of any of his books in hardback. Now, 15 years after his death, his books are being reissued to critical acclaim and are actually beginning to sell. A Good School (above) is probably the best starting point for anyone looking to begin reading Yates – a highly recommended activity. It's a quick read, at 169 pages, and the quality of writing is evident on every page. Yates is a master of third person narrative, only ever focusing on one character's thoughts, but constantly changing focus and entering the mind of a new character. He uses this method here to build up a picture of the pupils and staff at an all-boys private school, which is a small community unto itself. Gradually the problems of all the pupils, and worse, the staff, become apparent. And then World War Two begins, and their lives intertwine in more and more unpredictable ways. No-one is all good or all bad, and the book is riveting because of that; for good or for ill, every character evokes empathy.
(A Good School by Richard Yates by Ryan Agee, 06 Jan 2008 at THE SKINNY)
At fifteen, Terry Flynn had the face of an angel and the body of a perfect athlete...
Set in a small boarding school on the eve of America's entry into World War Two, A Good School (above) tells the story of William Grove, the nervous teenager trying to fit in; the betrayed alcoholic, Jack Draper; and Edith Stone, the teacher's daughter, who falls in love with the most popular boy in school.
Instantly acclaimed on its first publication, peopled with some of Richard Yates's most memorable characters, this tender, spare masterpiece is a haunting meditation on the twilight of youth, and an unforgettable description of the impact of war on the lives of an innocent generation.


Robert Prentice is eighteen, and his boyhood dreams have disintegrated on the battlefields of Europe. At home, his mother, Alice, wraps herself in fantasy against the relentless disappointments of life.
From his compelling portraits of these two damaged souls, Richard Yates creates a brilliant novel of post-war America, at odds with its own identity, striving to combine prosperity and ideals, mercilessly exposed in the attempt to do so. At once tender and ironic, bitterly sad and achingly funny, A Special Providence (above) is the second novel by the author of Revolutionary Road.


All the sorrows of Evan Shepard's loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles...
In the small suburban town of Cold Spring Harbor (above), Evan Shephard and his young bride Rachel yearn to escape the mistakes of their parents. But as they discover, families exert a hold as tight as fate, and every way out only ends up back home.


John Wilder is in his mid-thirties, a successful salesman with a place in the country, an adoring wife and a ten-year-old son. But something is wrong. His family no longer interests him, his infidelities are leading him nowhere and he has begun to drink too much. Then one night, something inside John snaps and he calls his wife to tell her that he isn’t coming home…


First published in 1962, a year after Revolutionary Road, this sublime collection of stories (above) seems even more powerful today. Out of the lives of Manhattan office workers, a cab driver seeking immortality, frustrated would-be novelists, suburban men and their yearning, neglected women, Richard Yates creates a haunting mosaic of the 1950s, the era when the American dream was finally coming true - and just beginning to ring a little hollow.


With his second collection of short stories, Richard Yates continues to extend his range as a writer of stunning power and eloquence. Liars in Love (above) is concerned with troubled relations and the elusive nature of truth:
Hope, dread, disorder, and a nervous entangling of separate lives in Greenwich Village during the Depression, as seen by a child, in 'Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired'. The volatile, perilous course of events set in motion when two divorced mothers agree to “pool their resources” and live together, with their children in 'Trying Out for the Race'. A young American soldier’s too-abrupt postwar reunion, on foreign soil, with the lovely, dismayingly grown-up sister he hasn’t seen since he was eleven and she was ten, in 'A Compassionate Leave'.
The seven stories in this collection showcase Yates's extraordinary gift for observation and description. The last and longest of them, a rich, lucid, and compelling piece called 'Saying Goodbye to Sally', achieves a fitting conclusion for the book – and a resonant final statement of its theme.


Even as little girls, Sarah and Emily are very different from each other. Emily looks up to her wiser and more stable older sister and is jealous of her relationship with their absent father, and later her seemingly golden marriage. The path she chooses for herself is less safe and conventional and her love affairs never really satisfy her. Although the bond between them endures, gradually the distance between the two women grows, until a tragic event throws their relationship into focus one last time. Richard Yates's masterful novel (above) follows the two sisters from their childhood in the 1920s through the challenges of their adult choices, and depicts the different ways they seek to escape from their tarnished family past.


By the time he was twenty-three, Michael Davenport had learned to trust his own scepticism...
Young, newly married and intensely ambitious, Michael Davenport is a minor poet trying to make a living as a writer. His adoring wife Lucy has a private fortune that he won't touch in case it compromises his art. She in turn is never quite certain of what is expected of her. All she knows is that everyone else seems, somehow, happier.
In this magnificent novel (above), at once bitterly sad and achingly funny, Richard Yates again shows himself to be the supreme, tenderly ironic chronicler of the ‘American Dream’ and its casualties.
Richard Yates confounded expectations by writing cautionary tales about how dangerous it is to applaud yourself for being a good person. In Yates' world, good intentions are, paradoxically, a kind of condescension bred of fear transmuted into hard resolve. But the stories also suggest the durability of the human spirit, the yearning that resonates long after the shooting star of possibility has burned out against the night sky. There's something in him of the spirit of Robert Burns, whose famous poem lamented that we cannot see ourselves as others see us. Yates' characters don't dare, because therein lies the potential for tragedy…..
Yates' characters misunderstand and miscalculate; they soldier on when their unit is retreating. They get caught in the cross fire when good intentions intersect with their own oblivion or with their vanity (often, in Yates, the two are paired). His characters are delicate, almost translucent until the moment when they become darker and are revealed to contain fear, dread or loathing. What they're resisting, ultimately, is themselves -- but they're already on what seems to be an unalterable trajectory……
On some level, they're stories about stories. Within the larger story there are recitations that express far more than the speaker means to say; they're small, perfectly imperfect monologues that in another form might take the shape of a noose. Yates' stories are unflinching and uncompromising, complex at the same time they seem to unfold naturally and simply. Once you've read him, you wouldn't mistake his voice or the way he structures a story: the music, the images, the deceptive matter-of-factness with which the characters lead their lives (which resembles the way he lays out a story)…..
(Out of Oblivion / A writer rejoices that Richard Yates' stories are back in print By Ann Beattie, May 06, 2001 at SEGate.com)

Richard Yates

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