The Best Years of Our Lives
Prematurely middle-aged at 25, lonely, and struggling with dreams that have become delusions, the ad man at the center of Richard Yates's story "Regards at Home" describes a malaise that seems epidemic among the late writer's creations. For this character, Dan Rosenthal, life is a little like the Empire State Building:
You see it from a distance, maybe at sunset, and it's this majestic, beautiful thing. Then you get inside, you walk around a couple of the lower floors, and it turns out to be one of the sleaziest office buildings in New York: There's nothing in there but small-time insurance agencies and costume jewelry wholesalers...you ride all the way up to the top and your eardrums hurt and you're out there at the parapet looking out, looking down, and even that's a disappointment because you've seen it all in photographs so many times.
In settings from Paris to New York, from the far-reaching sprawl of America's suburbs to the sweltering blacktops of military bases, the 27 grim, pitch-perfect tales that make up the newly released Collected Stories of Richard Yates (Henry Holt) read like documents from a time capsule. These tales quickly disabuse us of the notion that the "greatest generation" felt all that great about themselves in the aftermath of World War II. Yates's men--and they are almost always men--soldier through stagnant marriages and three-martini lunches and long afternoons at tedious jobs. The fantasies of a freer life--in Paris, most often--grow dim. At night, they commute home to collapse in armchairs, clasping highballs and cigarettes. What energy they have left they squander on high-strung secretaries, or late-night sessions at the typewriter, where they hope to write like Hemingway.
When Yates died in 1992, most of his work was out of print, with the exception of his masterpiece, the novel Revolutionary Road, which told the story of a married couple languishing in the suburbs. Yet despite the hit of recognition he received with that work--Revolutionary Road was a National Book Award finalist--Yates never quite achieved literary stardom. Following a stint in advertising, he began drinking heavily and suffered several breakdowns. He smoked four packs of cigarettes a day, and was prone to lung problems after an 18-month bout with tuberculosis. He bounced around university teaching posts, including one at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Given the way Yates's stories mimic the trajectory of this life--prep school, the army, advertising, writing--one is inclined to assume that Yates shared at least some of his characters' chronic disaffection.
The Collected Stories draws from two volumes published nearly 20 years apart, as well as a handful of uncollected pieces, but it's surprising to discover how little the author's bailiwick--the interior lives of men and their thwarted ambitions--changed over his career. Here the future's promise recedes before a punishing present, as unplanned pregnancies and layoffs force his men to surrender their dreams. The selections from Yates's earlier collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962) feature mostly young men just out of the military or school, determined to live the footloose life before the heavy mantle of responsibility descends upon them.
The instinct to escape runs deep. In "The Best of Everything," a blue-collar clerk engaged to a brittle, insecure woman worries over losing touch with his "fellas," cronies who like to swig gin and shoot the bull. When the clerk's fiancee suggests they stay in for a quiet evening, he recoils: "He backed away, eyes round with righteousness. She would have to understand. If this was the way she acted before the wedding, how the hell was it going to be afterwards?" In "The B.A.R Man," an army veteran goes AWOL from his marriage and carouses the Big Apple with two soldiers, infantrymen who admire the gun he never shot. Although such domestic meltdowns feel dated, there is something subversive about these characters' discontentment with the era's conformist ideal.
While Yates has a keen, if sobering, eye for the limitations of postwar domesticity, his best stories inhabit the wider world, depicting moments when the races mingled uneasily. In these pieces, McCarthy-era bigotry seeps into the hearts and minds of his disillusioned characters. In "A Really Good Jazz Piano," Yates distills the entire relationship of two Ivy-Leaguers into a savagely affecting scene at a bar in Cannes, where one of the men humiliates a black pianist in front of a Las Vegas club owner, thereby ruining the pianist's chances to "make it big" in the U.S. In "Oh Joseph, I'm So Tired," a man recalls his boyhood growing up in Greenwich Village, where he was home-schooled by a Dutch Jew. When the boy's mother fails, once again, at selling a sculpture--this one, a bust of FDR--she fires his diligent tutor, spewing racial epithets. Such explosions of tension relieve the muted depression that hangs like a fog over this volume.
Collected here for the first time in a single edition, these stories have received excited acclaim from such writers as Richard Ford, William Styron, and Richard Russo, who contributes a loving introduction. And Yates's careful sense of craft is undeniable--enviable, in fact. Each story opens with an immediacy that compels further reading. Events unfold naturally, yet with subtle drama. And the dialogue, which hews to the gimcrack optimism of the Fifties, is dead-on. One can fathom why Yates was wooed by Hollywood (though none of his scripts were ever produced). And one can also understand why a generation of writers has been clamoring for this volume.
But while technically proficient, Yates's short fiction doesn't so much reach out to its readers as map the close quarters of its own misery. As Yates's themes and moods endlessly repeat themselves--depression, the vise of marriage, the loss of dreams--his book ultimately leans toward a type of solipsism. At some point, each new character takes off his mask to reveal the woeful face of our author. As with the work of John Updike and Walker Percy, one wonders what the other characters are thinking--as opposed to just the tragically beleaguered men.
Yates himself seems aware of this flaw, and sometimes strives--rather unconvincingly--to rectify this. In "Builders," the story of a hack learning to write fiction, this effort to engage the world becomes poignant. As this character observes the limitations of his own tale, he darkens with regret: "I'm not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the faulty craftsmanship....God knows there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us."
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