After reading these three works I want to read A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates to gain more perspective on what influenced him. Clearly, the army and wartime, TB, moving homes with frequency, journalism and advertising, and of course, tragic relationships, all have impacted his work. The three efforts are beautifully written and devastating in their unflinching portrayals of self-deception.
The first book is Revolutionary Road and this must be the only time that I have first seen the movie then read the book and not been disappointed or felt robbed in any way. In fact, as strong a treatment as the film was I was able to remove the Hollywood leads as visual or mental representations of the main characters. This speaks to how wonderful the writing is, how rich the story, and just how much more there is in the book that could ever be covered in the film. Do not get me wrong, the film is excellent unlike The Talented Mr. Ripley which ruined Patricia Highsmith's series for me.
Most will be familiar with the storyline and the theme of living together but alone. Set in 1955 (the year my parents married which very much made me think as I read it), the book follows the turbulence and calmness that is Frank and April Wheeler, somewhat arrogant but unaware Connecticut suburbanites who see themselves apart from their neighbors in the Revolutionary Hill Estates. The book opens beautifully embedding the reader in their lives by introducing us to the young couple as April stars in an embarrassingly bad community theater production of The Petrified Forest.
Dancing lightly and gracefully back and forth through their ten or so years together we see April convince Frank they should move to Paris, where she will work and support him while he finds out who he is. At this time he is an unsatisfied promotional writer who ironically has ended up at his father's workplace. April's plan collides or coincides with Frank's unintended but interesting run of success - he actually begins to try at work.
As someone who receives their paycheck from a Madison Avenue business, I thoroughly enjoyed the parts covering Frank at work. Bare minimum effort is absolutely acceptable but when he tries to stay ahead of a potentially embarrassing gaff, he ends of hitting it out of the park in the form of a series of brochures for his IBM-ish employer (Speaking of Inventory Control, Speaking of Sales Analysis, Speaking of Payroll). This happens at the same time that he begins an affair with the receptionist. The two acts are arguably his own revolution against his life, wife and her plans. And he is amazed at how easy it was to attain both (even though he did put in just a little bit more effort than he usually did).
Yates cannot help but give Frank and his neighbor Shep histories that include service in the Second World War (this is common in Yates, I first read it in his The B.A.R. Man). And it strikes me that many of that generation were experiencing some form of post traumatic stress as they built their lives in suburbia, had barbecues and cocktails, and revered Ike in the White House. This is also touched upon in the critically acclaimed period television show, Mad Men, with their pitchers of martinis, old war stories, and sarcastic disdain for the world around them.
Shep is an extremely simple, yet complex, supporting character and his wartime service is remarkable. Having served in the airborne (either the 101st or 82nd), Yates would have us believe he jumped three times making him a veteran of D-Day, Market Garden and Plunder Varsity. One small flaw is that if he was airborne, Shep may not have known let alone sung an infantry song with Frank (but I digress). Shep is an interesting guy because he sees the Wheelers as ideal or the ideal.
One amazing passage is the boss Bart Pollock's little speech in a restaurant on business, selling and promotion. I have heard current day talks on branding and advertising that are not much different. It is just great that Yates nailed it in 1960 and in his first novel. And the setting is fantastic with Frank basically duplicating a meeting that happened to his father years before but this one ending more favorably career-wise.
The plot moves with incredible speed even though there is much going on between this couple and everyone they interact with. When April conceives their third child, their plan to leave America crumbles, not least because Frank is flattered by the attention from Pollock and actually begins to see a career path. So April, overwhelmed by the situation and unable to deal with living on Revolutionary Road for an indefinite period, attempts to self-abort her child. This takes place soon after the comment from John, the mentally troubled son of their realtor whose last statement to them about the pregnancy may have been ringing in her ear, "Hey, you know I'm glad of one thing, though. You know what I am glad of? I'm glad I'm not gonna be that kid."
April is rushed to hospital following her attempt and dies. Her demise and the departure of the remaining Wheeler family impacts all who have placed them on a pedestal. The way that Yates concludes the book with Frank truly alone is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. It is simply and eloquently haunting.
The Easter Parade covers roughly four decades in the lives of sisters Sarah and Emily Grimes. Yates at first makes us believe this will be a story focusing on the elder Sarah but quite quickly it is Emily who takes the stage with her sister, parents, various suitors and extended family playing important but ultimately supporting roles.
Emily though younger is more deliberate, efficient, and seemingly put together when compared with her divorced parents and soon-to-be helpless and pathetic sister. Surrounded by these struggling people Emily is positioned as somewhat superior, as having a better read on life and how to live it. Yet she bounces from relationship to relationship and has two abortions along the way. Yates has us wonder if it is Sarah who was the more talented and could have been more successful if only for a few fateful decisions.
Yates covers the thirties to early seventies and spends the most time in the sixties. This is his comfort time zone where he places Emily at an advertising agency writing copy and progressing well until she begins to realize that "It didn't matter what you did for a living; the important thing was the kind of person you were". She intellectualizes this but does not internalize nor act on it. She, like Frank Wheeler, has to some degree, followed her father `s career producing a second generation of poor decisions and sad results (I imagined Frank passing Emily on Madison Avenue with neither registering each other).
The writing is superb but the story is not as strong or tight as Revolutionary Road. But he beautifully conjures up images of Manhattan that seem now stereotypical but must have been real. A father taking his young daughter out for a double ice cream while he enjoys a double scotch, vacuous but fabulous cocktail parties featuring professionals trying to outdo each other, and a city which is so alive it is a character in the story. Emily does not have all or any of the answers in life but Yates leaves the door open for hope and fulfillment and for him that is generous.
Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is a collection beginning with Doctor Jack-o'-Lantern that covers the miscommunications and challenges between student and teacher and student with peers. It also explores the discrimination faced by any one remotely different. The Best of Everything is a quick and unsettling little tale about marriage and a young couple not quite being right for each other. Jody Rolled The Bones has Yates visiting the military as he often does and ably demonstrating how a group of young men can rapidly mature and recognize that often what they need is what they want least.
No Pain Whatsoever is not the strongest of the collection but does establish a setting whereby a couple must make the best of a terrible situation without losing each other. Both A Glutton for Punishment and A Wrestler with Sharks deal with careers and job loss. The former uses a cute childhood analogy while the latter revolves around deception. Fun with a Stranger is an interesting title for this story of envy and disappointment which focuses on the differences in personality and teaching styles.
The B.A.R. Man reveals that one's best days are in the past and once realized it can lead to bad decisions. A Really Good Jazz Piano speaks of lost opportunity and undefined friendships. Out with the Old is a bittersweet tale that takes place on a TB ward (like an earlier one in the collection). Yates provides great humanity to the cast who entertain themselves daily to remove the boredom while at the same time trying to stay connected with their families and the outside world. The final tale, Builders, I found the most intriguing of the bunch. It communicates the need for hope and optimism while extolling the pursuit of farfetched dreams.
The three works are introduced by Richard Price who provides his interesting connection to Yates. It also features a cool chronology covering the Author's Life, Literary Context, and Historical Events which helps with context. I recommend this collection unreservedly and look forward to re-reading it with a scotch or three.