Realism, Madness, Drugs, and Demon Rum

“Whenever I hear someone use the word ‘reality’ I want to reach for a custard pie.” So wrote an eminent professor of English. George Stade, not long ago. And you know what he means. “Reality” is a suspect word—presumably because what it names does not exist. Which is the great lesson of modern culture.
This truth turns out to be uncomforting when you have lost your car keys, your love, your health, your way, but that’s another problem. The problem on my mind at the moment is that the death of reality makes life difficult for those writers who don’t know the war is over, who continue to write books that insist on the truth of their world.
Things being what they are, relatively few “realistic” novelists can claim to be taken with full seriousness. One of them is Richard Yates, whose best book. Revolutionary Road, a gritty picture of marriage in the suburbs, was published in 1961. Since then he has published a book of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, and a less successful novel. A Special Providence.
Yates’s new novel. DISTURBING THE PEACE (Seymour Lawrence/Delacorte, $7.95), takes on a special risk. It is not only realistic but it’s realistic about a dangerous subject: madness, one of the essential modern themes used again and again as a device for revealing the multiplicity of experience, the hollowness of social convention. In Disturbing the Peace, madness is taken literally, a subject as real as flesh.
The novel follows the psychological descent of John Wilder, an advertising space salesman in his mid-thirties, prosperous, miserably married, and an alcoholic. It begins with a 100-page set piece that is as good as anything Yates has previously written, in which Wilder returns from a business trip, drunk and distraught, says he fears he’s going to kill his wife and children, and is hauled off to Bellevue. Then he’s thrown into the midst of a brilliantly rendered assortment of psychopaths and their eerie keepers.
Something goes a bit awry a third of the way through the book; trouble sets in with the appearance of a not quite credible girl whose “small nose bobs very slightly up and down at each syllable beginning with a p, b, or m. . . .” But this is the sort of novel that makes you feel faintly guilty when you describe it in terms of what part works and what part doesn’t. Every page, flawed or not, bears the mark of comprehended pain.
The hero is a man incarcerated in a body whose “nerves are screaming”; he can’t contain his emotions without the anesthesia of drink. Yates has a persuasive way with alcoholism. He dramatizes the alcoholic’s double sense of exalted worth and worthlessness, his inward rage at the sober people around him, who seem to be immune from feeling. John Wilder seethes with contempt for the deadened nerve ends he imagines others to have, even as he murders his own nerves with bourbon.
Alcohol and the tranquilizers he recklessly washes down are the avenues for Wilder’s movement into full-fledged lunacy, a messianic complex. Although this sometimes seems all too clinically perfect—Wilder at one point thinks he’s Christ—I never doubt for a moment that Yates understands what it is like to step over the edge into dementia, as the voices appear (“He let go of the tree . . . and walked again, beginning to feel as if hundreds of needles were gently pricking his flesh. His vision was distorted too: colorless flecks danced before his eyes; and still the doggerel went on, as real as if someone . . . were whispering the words beside him . . .”). Yates makes you feel the horror of delusion and the pain of the long swim up from the bottom, back toward sanity, as in one of those multi-tiered dreams, when you think you’ve awakened but have not.
There are things wrong with this novel. Most important, Yates enacts all too well his hero’s solipsism, and other figures in the book lack depth. But at its best. Disturbing the Peace reminds you of the considerable courage that can sometimes be found in unselfconscious art.
Glance at the opening pages of Mark Vonnegut’s THE EDEN EXPRESS (Praeger, $8.95) and you might set it aside as just another hippie’s memoir of life in the long-ago 1960s. But you’d be wrong, and you would miss a remarkable book. Vonnegut, who is the son of Kurt Vonnegut, graduated from Swarthmore in 1969 and, like a lot of his well-educated contemporaries, he lit out for the countercultural life, a quest that took him to a remote abandoned farm in British Columbia, where he founded a commune. And where he went crazy. I don’t use that word flippantly—I imitate the author, who uses it with care and respect. This book is a report on schizophrenia, by an insider.
At the start it seemed to Vonnegut that he had found a place that answered all his inner needs, and his life was an idyll. Most readers might not think so-constant mosquitoes, brown rice for supper, a wreck of a house to rebuild out of lumber that had to be fashioned by hand—but it was an escape from the “plastic” civilization he loathed, and it provided adversity and simplicity, two qualities his life had lacked.
But then came an abrupt emotional collapse. In retrospect, of course, it wasn’t so abrupt. He writes ominously of his draft board physical, where he successfully “faked” insanity—except that partway through his act he realized he wasn’t faking at all. There was a trip back home to the Northeast, which set him quaking within and made him pathologically rude to others. Back at the farm, though, these symptoms could be explained, even glorified, as a sane response to an insane society. Vonnegut was then much influenced by the theories of Thomas Szasz and R. D. Laing: madness as a higher morality. He would not hold on to these notions for long.
In describing what happened to him, Vonnegut is admirably generous and discreet toward those around him, and unsparing with himself. I don’t mean to suggest that he blames himself—it was one of the central lessons of this trip that blame doesn’t quite apply.
Diagnosticians from afar who would explain the case in terms of a father-son relationship won’t find much evidence here, and they ought to be impressed by the calm mixture of reticence and plain speech that young Vonnegut brings to the subject of his father, whose fame, of course, complicated his son’s life. (Among his hippie friends only first names were used, but Mark was habitually introduced as “Mark Vonnegut.”) There is a touching imaginary dialogue between father and son (Mark is in a hallucinatory state), in which the elder Vonnegut says: “Don’t you see I’m responsible for all this pain you’re going through? How can you not hate me?" And the son hears himself replying: “If you weren’t the fifteenth joker through here in the last few hours trying to claim responsibility for the hell I’m in, I might be able to take you more seriously. I admit you’ve got a better case than most. A lot of what’s going on certainly has your flavor to it. but there are plenty of others who have a reasonable case. . . .”
The best energy of this book goes not toward analysis but toward description of his sickness and recovery. He gazes at himself when others would look away: helpless in both euphoria and despair, unable to eat, sobbing, hallucinating, in the grip, finally, of terrifying fantasies of omnipotence and guilt.
In the telling he can bring a certain wry sense to the awfulness. And at the same time he can make a moment meant for black comedy seem unfunny and real, as when he recalls himself staring at a psychiatrist’s gold tie clip, certain it was a device to end the world.
Vonnegut was institutionalized twice. The first time he was apparently discharged too early, and with inadequate supervision. The second time he was helped. Brought down by Thorazine, he was kept stable partly by drugs, but also by diet, vitamin therapy, and a disciplined schedule. This doesn’t work for all schizophrenics, but it worked for Vonnegut, and it’s not surprising that he’s a convert to the view that holds schizophrenia to be a biochemical disorder. His assertions on this point will upset a lot of psychiatrists, but the book shouldn’t be read in a literal-minded way. To point out that there may be many explanations for schizophrenia (and that they may be simultaneously correct) is not to diminish the force of the memoir. The importance of the book lies in what Vonnegut learned from his misery.
At the center of his knowledge is a new view of craziness, stripped of its moral content, neither a stigma nor a badge, de-romanticized. In an epilogue. Vonnegut writes a letter to a friend who fears the onset of mental illness: “. . . your mental health is not dependent on the moral, socio-political health of the world. Thank God for little things like that. It also means that getting well doesn’t involve our becoming any less angry with things as they are.”
Not profound? No, but hard-earned, necessary knowledge. And if it seems trivial, consider the countless parents whose children are flirting with craziness, who would give anything to express those sentiments convincingly.
Two books: a novel and a memoir: one art, the other nearly artless. What they share is a willingness to look madness in the eye, not as a conceit but as an actuality. At some point while reading them I was reminded of a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, called “The Lost Decade.”It’s about two men, one of whom has been drunk, “every whichway drunk.” for ten years. After hearing this tale, the alcoholic’s companion starts to walk down the street and then he pauses: “He felt suddenly of the texture of his own coat and then he reached out and pressed his thumb against the granite of the building by his side.” Both these books, disparate as thev are in accomplishment and intent, make you grateful for the feel of something solid.
—Richard Todd