Cities without landmarks
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
“The Collected Stories of Richard Yates,” 27 short works with scarcely an uplifting, encouraging or life-affirming moment in them, is turning into a sleeper hit, showing up on several independent bookstores’ bestseller lists. This may seem surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Yates, who died in 1992, had a small but fiercely devoted following, especially among other fiction writers, and when his 1961 novel “Revolutionary Road” was restored to print last year, with a splendid introduction by Richard Ford, a new audience was introduced to Yates’ crisp, distinctive voice. Now we have the collected stories as well, and belated as it may seem to Yates’ admirers, 2001 turns out to be an auspicious moment for their arrival.
These stringent, ruthlessly straightforward (yet never, thank God, “minimalist”) stories are set mostly in the late ’40s and ’50s, yet they’re perfect reading for right now, when we’re just starting to reacquaint ourselves with economic downturn and widespread economic anxiety, when our political discourse is insipid and our mass culture seems more vacuous than ever. In their measured, crystalline prose, Yates’ stories make us ask how we ever expected so much in the first place. They demolish all pretense, puncture all forms of bloat. Yates lays into his characters’ human flaws with a merciless precision. Yet he’s never simply cruel or bilious; he’s got his eye on something higher and finer. Somehow, once you’ve let him blow away your last vestige of hope in the redeeming value of humankind, you feel oddly cleansed, as if finally, now, you can start to think a few things that are true.
There’s not much left once Yates is done with postwar America. Self-interest, faithlessness and delusions of grandeur appear to have infiltrated every last corner of his characters’ lives. The family? Smothering, or chilly, or both in exactly the wrong ways. Marriage? A sadly deluded act, entered into for ridiculously flimsy reasons, proving in practice to be just a setup for the long indignity of divorce and alimony payments. Friendship? A pathetic, temporary attempt at a substitute for marriage and family, minus the alimony when things drift or break apart, as they inevitably will. The corporate world? A slow death of gray, soul-sucking, windowless busy work. Bohemia? A shabby, laughable stab at glory by those too untalented to create real art, too conceited to get a real job. Patriotism? A lazy longing for the dull, familiar pain of home. Love? Ha.
Dark as it is, Yates’ message is not nihilistic. He’s not saying that life is merely meaningless or unfair. In fact he metes out disappointment and failure and mortification to his characters with a marked sense of justice, even of decency. He’s an equal-opportunity humiliator — in his fictional universe a wealthy and powerful film director is no less self-deceiving than the lowliest clerk who dreams of the corner office; the beautiful fall on their faces as often as the ugly. As for writers, they may be the saddest of all Yates’ characters, with their refusal ever to admit to failure, their embarrassing secret fantasies of fame and honor, their vain, impotent hopes of being the next Hemingway or Fitzgerald, their bluster about “moving to Paris to write.”
As hard as he is on writers in general, Yates spares himself least of all. In fact it’s in the three stories that most clearly use autobiographical elements that Yates is at his fiercest and most devastating, as if he’s entered into a calm fury of anti-heroic truth telling. In “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired,” the theme is his mother’s epic self-deceptions, and the toll they took on her children. The story plunges us into an excruciating truth: that Helen, the narrator’s mother, whom he loves and who is his only source of comfort since she’s divorced his father and moved Billy and his sister out of their Westchester home into a Greenwich Village courtyard apartment, is a ridiculous character, a talentless, self-dramatizing wannabe artist in love with the idea of herself as a sculptor, definitely alcoholic, quite possibly mentally ill.
The story concerns a childhood incident that drives home the brutal reality that Billy’s mother is a bungler: Helen is given the chance to sculpt the head of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and it brings her not celebrity but mortification. (The connection is made through a neighbor, a man who’d “just lost his job as a reporter on the New York Post” — Yates’ stories are filled with men who’ve just been fired, or are about to be.) By the end of that first paragraph he has diagnosed his mother’s personality problems with a pitiless accuracy: “She was confident about everything she did in those days,” he says of her plan to achieve national notoriety through her sculpture of Roosevelt, “but it never quite disguised a terrible need for support and approval on every side.” Like many if not most of Yates’ characters, her heavy drinking is hard to separate from the rest of what’s off-kilter in her life; one night she passes out on 7-year-old Billy’s bed and leaves “a slick mouthful of puke” on his pillow.
Her sculpture of FDR turns out to be “too small. It didn’t look heroic. If you could have hollowed it out it would have made a serviceable bank for loose change.” Her long-anticipated presentation of the statue to the president at the White House is perfunctory: “It didn’t take long. There were no reporters and no photographers.” Then the kicker: At lunch with a friend of a friend she inadvertently learns that back home she is a laughingstock: “Last time I saw Bart,” her companion tells her of her children’s tutor, “he said ‘Charlie, the Depression’s over for me,’ and he told me he’d found some rich, dumb, crazy woman who’s paying him to tutor her kids.”
Helen’s tireless quest to shore up the image of herself as a sculptor is still going on in “Regards at Home,” but now Billy is 23; he’s called Bill and is an aspiring writer. This time Yates has not sculptorly but writerly self-deceptions in his cross hairs. When Bill’s girlfriend, Eileen, pegs his mother as an “art bum” — one of those people “on the fringes of art for so many years, talking and talking about it” until they “come to expect all the prerogatives of being an artist without ever doing the work” — he tries to defend her, but it comes out “weak and lame and overstated.” As much as he has begun to despise his mother’s refusal to “come to terms with reality,” her need to “make a romance out of” every failure and unnecessary hardship, he’s begun to exhibit some of the same traits. He finds himself making excuses to a work friend, “I held forth at some length, then, on how hard it was to get any real writing done when you were stuck in a full-time job. We’d been trying to save a little money so we could go live in Europe … but now, with the baby coming, there wasn’t much chance of that.”
Against all odds — against, really, his own self-deceptive nature — Bill does eventually make it to Paris, thanks to the urging of Eileen, who’s now his wife (but, of course, won’t be for too much longer, he lets us know). The decision to leave New York, to move far away, in particular, from his mother, allows him, finally, to “take up the business of my life.” It’s a happy ending, for a Yates story, but we’re not meant to make a romance out of it. Bill’s rueful voice as he relates these events and the self-knowledge that came along with them wouldn’t allow for any grandiose or sentimental predictions for his future.
In “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” Yates crafts a Hollywood parable out of his own experience. (He spent years there as a screenwriter, though none of his scripts was ever produced.) Patiently chronicling the months Jack Fields, who’s published one critically successful but financially unremunerative novel, spends stumbling through L.A., the story scrubs the rosy glow off the scene Jack finds there. The cast of characters is familiar: the arrogant 32-year-old superstar director, the rich divorcee whose Beverly Hills home is full of freeloading hangers-on. Friends and lovers drift together and apart with high passion but no discernible principles. The booze flows freely, of course, providing a fuzzy cover for the aimlessness at the heart of the characters’ ambition.
It would be easy to portray Jack as somehow better than these people, and corrupted by them. Instead Yates points out Jack’s own insecurities and pretensions — his “jolly, noisy” going-away party is “closely attuned to the jaunty image of himself that he always hoped to convey to others” — as well as his naked, naive desire for literary recognition, or at least significance. “What lay ahead of him … might easily turn out to be a significant adventure: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood.”
What happens, of course, is that Jack’s illusions are crushed, one by one. The beach house he rents is just as dank, grungy and uninviting as his New York apartment; the secretary girlfriend, Sally, who at first seemed so smart and independent, turns out to be needy and manipulative, in thrall to the scarily superficial rich woman in whose palatial house she lives. The writing … we don’t hear much about the writing. It’s crammed in between hours he whiles away with his new L.A. friends, who are all clearly, like Jack — like Yates — alcoholics, with all the rationalizations, self-pity, histrionics and wasted hours that comes with.
What’s left after Yates has turned himself inside out for us like that — where’s the pleasure in reading it? Richard Russo, in his perceptive, heartfelt introduction to the collection, captures the appeal nicely. The excitement of reading Yates’ stories, he says, is in “the exhilaration of encountering, recognizing and embracing the truth. It’s not a pretty truth? Too bad. That we recognize ourselves in the blindness, the neediness, the loneliness, even the cruelty of Yates’ people, will have to suffice.”
I’d venture that there’s even more than that going on — a transaction between Yates and his readers that’s almost tender. He’s put himself on the line for us in order to deliver the truth as scrupulously, as selflessly, as he knows how, and even in the darkest moments there’s a feeling of something like grace hovering around his efforts.
Maria Russo has been a writer and editor at The Los Angeles Times, The New York Observer and Salon, and is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.More Maria Russo.
Niagara Falls, U.S./Canada
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
Mount Rushmore, South Dakota, U.S.
Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
Colosseum, Rome, Italy
Taj Mahal, Agra, India
Siena Cathedral, Siena, Italy
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Lost City of Petra, Jordan