Some months ago a friend asked if I had any book recommendations so I lent him Collected Short Stories and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I haven’t seen my friend since, but I understand from frayed that, although he liked the books, he found their bleakness disturbing. He also thought that the fact that I had lent him not one but two of Yates’s books, with a recommendation that they were among my favorites, cast me in a new light. To which I intend to reply when I next see him –there is a reason why “they lived happily ever after” is the last line in the book.
Yates’s version of desolation is always full of unexpected twists, but it is not so much the tightness and originality of his plotting that makes Yates such a unique writer—it is the quality of writing. He has a brilliant ear for dialogue, punctuation, and pace. In the example below for example all Yates really has to do is say is that Sabella, the unpopular new boy in the classroom, comes from a poor part of New York. Yet in doing so he manages in a few deft strokes to paint a whole world for Sabella to inhabit at the end of the school day.
Ordinarily, the fact of someone’s coming from New York might have held a certain prestige, for to most of the children the city was an awesome, adult place that swallowed up their fathers every day, and which they themselves were permitted to visit only rarely, in their best clothes, as a treat. But anyone could see at a glance that Vincent Sabella had nothing whatever to do with skyscrapers. Even if you could ignore his tangled black hair and gray skin, his clothes would have given him away; absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remnants of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest. Clearly he was from the part of New York that you had to pass through on the train to Grand Central—the part where people hung bedding over their windowsills and leaned out on it all day in a trance of boredom, and where you got vistas of straight deep streets, one after another, all alike in the clutter of their sidewalks and all swarming with gray boys at play in some desperate kind of ball game.
It all reminds me of that great Tom Waits song “9th and Hennepin”.
no one brings anything small into a bar around here
They all started out with bad directions
And the girl behind the counter has a tattooed tear
"one for every year he's away", she said
Such a crumbling beauty, ah
There's nothing wrong with her that a hundred dollars won't fix
She has that razor sadness that only gets worse
With the clang and the thunder of the southern pacific going by
And the clock ticks out like a dripping faucet
'til you're full of rag water and bitters and blue ruin
And you spill out over the side to anyone who will listen...
And i've seen it all, i've seen it all
Through the yellow windows of the evening train...
If you care anything for the “razor sadness” of life, do pick up some Richard Yates, he won’t disappoint you. I’ll leave you with Kate Atkinson’s judgment:
“Yates is a realist par excellence, the natural heir to Hemingway’s pared-to-the-bones style and the antecedent of Carver’s flat minimalism. Yates has something else though, a kind of transparency, that owes more to Fitzgerald… there is something curiously and quite contrarily uplifting about Yates’s pursuit of honesty. Read and weep.”
See also a previous post on Yates.