Not a feel-good guy, exactly
She was a storekeeper’s daughter from a small town in Ohio; she had probably grown up hearing the phrase “good Republican” as an index of respectability and clean clothes. And maybe she had come to relax her standards of respectability; maybe she didn’t even care much about clean clothes anymore, but “good Republican” was worth clinging to. It would be helpful when she met the customers for her garden figures, the people whose low, courteous voices would welcome her into their lives and who would almost certainly turn out to be Republicans too.The Collected Stories of Richard Yates by Richard Yates 496 pages Picador, 2003
There’s only one moment of physical gruesomeness in The Catcher in the Rye, and that’s when James Castle, turtleneck-wearer, jumps out the window, lands on the sidewalk, and is as dead and smashed as anyone ought to be after a jump, broken teeth and all. The same respect for gravity and pavement run the show in Richard Yates’s work, whose two short-story collections and a handful of other stories are bundled together here. The best of them introduce you immediately to the characters and the flaws that doom them; so unmistakable are these flaws as fates that the only things left to know are how the tragedies will play out and what the damage will be when the characters hit the pavement.
The reader may feel that Yates is unfair, setting his characters up this way, and in some senses he is: his people can’t help being who they are, and they live with the traps and disappointments Yates tips into the stories as they go. But Yates’s theme – much more than other writers’, I think – is the exposure of these flaws and their costs. I don’t think I’ve read anyone else, except possibly Flaubert, who’s so interested in the subject, to the exclusion really of all else. He doesn’t care about politics; he’s not all that terribly interested in the wars of the sexes, although he deals with them; he’s not a social critic; he isn’t the voice of a generation. The stories are really all about these precisely rendered flaws – the most acceptable, most ordinary human flaws – that guarantee disastrous fuckups, character by character. As if to drive the point home, their circumstances have the material for happiness and minor, satisfied lives, if only they could take advantage. Naturally, they can’t. In pathetic moments of decision, his people can only act from their deepest, most spastic impulses, and helplessly wreck whatever good might be found in their lives. Critics have called this merciless, and so it is, though Yates is no moralist, only a renderer: it’s nobody’s fault that cowardice, for instance, has consequences. But anyone who is fragile is advised to steer clear: Yates, so readable and plain, is the master of the punch in the gut, the sickening thud.
There are really two writers in this collection: early and late Yates. Yates took a 15-year break from short-story writing after the success of Revolutionary Road in 1962, and in that time he wrote successful novels, made a literary-establishment name for himself, and won himself some freedom from the constraints of the commercial short story. The result is that there’s a gulf between the two main parts of the collection and nothing to show how the young writer turned into the older one. For that you’ll need to read the novels.
The early stories met with plenty of rejection, and it’s true that as stories, they’re not terribly effective. By and large, they’re the sort of thing that’s called a workshop story now: a writer self-consciously framing scenes in his sketchbook. Yates’s chronic characters and objects are already in play: the Eisenhower jacket, the TB ward, the alcoholic single mother, the poverty flat, the ex-soldier who never got into the war’s groove, the hack writer’s sourness, the maddening broad, the bar, the girl you can’t get next to. He treats his objects and people with respect, sometimes exaggerated, and moves the stories briskly along, but often they go awry or fizzle in a dud of a gesture that sounds all right, but doesn’t blow.
What makes them any good at all is the work Yates did as a portraitist, and I am reasonably convinced that Yates was never much interested in story except as a vehicle for making portraits of characters, inside and out, as careful and lively as Copley’s. Some of these early stories have moments of unbelievable beauty and density in which you see a character as if the rest of the story were only a backdrop for picking him out. In Jody Rolled the Bones, for instance, after many pages of engaging setup, Sergeant Reece – that slim, quiet Tennessean – is suddenly and beautifully revealed as a maker of men, and his voice is sweet and plaintive as he does his work; the reader hopes this nobility will save him, and knows in the pit of his stomach that it will not. The lost B.A.R. Man, of the story of that name, is revealed not by the drama at the end of the story, but as he explains to some insufficiently awed young fellas, “as if to children or girls”, what his weapon had been, and has to “take out his mechanical pencil and draw, from memory and love, a silhouette of the weapon on the back of his weekly pay envelope.”
The later stories are long, and sometimes magnificent; they take all the time they need in order to show plainly their characters and the meanings of what they do. Again, the usual characters, settings, and objects appear, all from Yates’s life: the delusional, alcoholic single mother, the mama’s boy, the castrating young woman, the wrecked professorial poet, the prostitute, the desolate land-grant college, the Army boys, the dead-end writing jobs, the squalid, ill-built houses, the fading single father-salesman who sends more money than he can afford. But to complain about this is a little like complaining that Monet was all haystacks, haystacks, haystacks. Each story holds up to a different light a small, finely varied set of human flaws and their consequences.
“Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” is the widely-anthologised star of the later stories, one of many in which a genteel single mother, doing her goddamned best, comprehensively destroys her children’s chances and her own. And indeed it seems to me the only genuine story in the bunch, the only one where no character upstages the others, and they live together in the story’s lurch and roll. The standout for me, though, is “Liars in Love”, about a young scholar and husband mid-separation, abandoned on his Fulbright in London, who takes up naively with a painfully needy prostitute. All the characters are drawn acutely, their troubles are real, and the tensions are strong: he never is in any real danger, and she never gets out of it. And yet what emerges is not so much a story as a portrait of this man – this kind of man, his kind of weakness, and its inevitable consequence. A close second is “Regards at Home”, which gives a long setup to show a responsible, repressed young man – you know him, he does you a favor every day, surely out of goodness – who still has teeth, and a powerfully complex bitterness.
Several critics have written that Yates’s characters delude themselves, can’t see how limited their talents and hopes are, and that this is the seed of their tragedy. I don’t think that’s quite accurate. There’s a painful self-awareness in many of his protagonists, reported energetically by Yates from a civil distance; they know how they’re weak, and alternately absolve and despise themselves. But they can’t sustain an unwavering appreciation of how serious their perfectly ordinary, perfectly forgivable errors are. Who can? And this is their disaster, to be so innocent of the fact that their thousand little steps have wandered them right up to the window and over the sill, that the pavement is hard every day, and that gravity will school them on the next line, or the next.
This review was originally published in The Short Review.