By Kevin Rabalais
Richard Yates keeps trying to break my heart. It happens every time I turn the page of one of his books. The truth is that I want him, maybe even need him, to do it. Break my heart. Knock me out of my chair. With Yates, you don’t need to ask. His work fulfills Kafka’s requirement that “we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us.”
During the 1960s, his name was on par, albeit briefly, with that of William Styron, John Updike and John Cheever. He was a speech writer for attorney-general Robert Kennedy, a wanted man in Hollywood. Before his death, in 1992, he wrote seven novels and two story collections, a rich and rewarding body of work that ranks among the best in twentieth-century American fiction. All the while, Yates’s fame rose and fell to the point where he died in near obscurity.
The Yates revival commenced a decade ago with the re-release of books that include The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Liars in Love and Young Hearts Crying. For anyone who has yet to read this work, there’s only one thing to remember: Richard Yates wants to break your heart. Know that in the process, he will gratify you so many times that you’ll find yourself crawling back to beg for more.
Never one to hold punches, Yates makes his first move fast. Take the opening of The Easter Parade, a novel that, on its own, assures Yates’s status among twentieth-century masters: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” Or the beginning of Disturbing the Peace, a novel about mental illness and institutionalization that echoes Yates’s own lifelong struggles: “Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960.” Or this, from his story “A Natural Girl”: “In the spring of her sophomore year when she was twenty, Susan Andrews told her father very calmly that she didn’t love him any more.”
Things begin badly for Yates’s characters and don’t end well. Fiction equals trouble or, to paraphrase Vladimir Nabokov, Beauty + Pity = Art. Still, if you eavesdrop for long enough in any bookshop, you’re likely to hear a customer ask for something happy. “You know. The kind of book where good things happen to good people.”
As Blake Bailey writes in A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates, “To repeat the obvious, most people don’t like reading about, much less identifying with, mediocre people who evade the truth until it rolls over them.” Yet these are just the kind of people whom Yates pursued throughout his writing life, beginning with Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road, a novel that interrogates relentlessly what Yates called “the general lust for conformity … a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.”
Frank Wheeler, a World War II veteran, marries young, starts a family with April by mistake, and takes a job in PR that he doesn’t want. The Wheelers and their two children move from New York City to Connecticut, where Frank, convinced that he’s superior to his fate, begins to fear that he has become another “dumb, insensitive suburban husband.”
April is no more satisfied with her lot than her brooding husband. She accepts a leading role in the community play, but the disastrous experience forces the Wheelers to confront what has become of the “enormous, obscene delusion” of their lives. They decide to move to Europe, a plan that gives them hope, at least for a while. After all, this is a Richard Yates novel. It was published in a banner year of American debut fiction. One glance at the shortlist of the 1962 National Book Award says it all: Revolutionary Road, Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (that year’s winner), and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
In later years, when interviewers would ask Heller why he hadn’t written anything as great as his debut novel, he would say, “So who else has?” Like Heller, Yates had the misfortune of writing his best book first. Though he never matched the unrelenting, unsentimental brilliance of Revolutionary Road, he came close enough on several occasions to ensure that books such s Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love—as perfect specimens of story collections as you will find—will continue to be read by serious readers who know, unlike that bookshop browser searching for happy books, that the art of fiction isn’t an escape but rather, as Flannery O’Connor put it, “ a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system.”
During a recent Melbourne Writers Festival, I mentioned to an award-wining Canadian novelist that I was rereading Revolutionary Road. We were crossing a busy street. Above the noise, she shouted, “It kills me every time!” I was forced to rescue her from oncoming traffic. For generations of writers, Revolutionary Road has been passed down like a sacred relic. Richard Ford, in his introduction to its fortieth anniversary calls the novel “a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.” Read his work and keep it in mind: Richard Yates wants to break your heart. Do yourself a favor. Let him.
A version of this article first appeared in The Weekend Australian.