A Sure Narrative Voice

byRichard Yates. Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence, $14.95.
RICHARD YATES CONFIDED in a memoir of his literary apprenticeship that The Great Gatsby was the most instructive novel he had ever read; its structure and technique were visible yet unobtrusive, “suggesting at least a hope that you might be able to figure out how it’s done.”
It was with this same sensation of reading a novel at once wholly believable and conscious of its own artifice that I read Yates’s first novel, Revolutionary Road. Published in 1961, when he was thirty-five, it remains one of the
few novels I know that could be called flawless. The story of a promising middle-class marriage that ends in ruin, Revolutionary Road is a grim, pitiless account of the miseries of suburban life. It depicts with controlled rage the illusions of conventional people who consider themselves bohemian, the defensiveness and snobbery encoded in their every act. Like Fitzgerald, Yates imbues his characters with honorable longings—for an ideal romantic love, a depth of experience, some lasting accomplishment—yet concentrates a remorseless eye on their vanity. He acknowledges their nearly limitless capacity for self-deception, yet isn’t punitive about it. When Frank Wheeler, a public-relations writer with higher, if vague, aspirations, is described as “an intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-PaulSartre sort of man,” the description is made to seem Wheeler’s rather than Yates’s; it is more self-mocking than satirical, and thus engages our sympathy.
Fitzgerald managed “to catch all his characters,” Yates noted, “in the very act of giving themselves away”—and so does Yates, without himself ever quite giving away how he does it. A master of dialogue, he is colloquial but never garrulous; his characters betray their confusion with perfect literary economy.
The narrative voice is formal, impersonal, exact, yet seems effortless, unliterary. “Could a man ride home in the rear smoker, primly adjusting his pants at the knees to protect their crease and rattling his evening paper into a narrow panel to give his neighbor elbow room?” Frank Wheeler muses on the way back to the suburbs after the beginning of an affair:
Hell, no. The way for a man to ride was erect and out in the open, out in the loud iron passageway where the wind whipped his necktie, standing with his feet set wide apart on the shuddering, clangoring floorplates, taking deep pulls from a pinched cigarette until its burning end was a needle of fire and quivering paper ash and then snapping it straight as a bullet into the roaring speed of the roadbed, while the suburban towns wheeled slowly along the pink and gray dust of seven o’clock.
The revelation of his momentary selfdelight is achieved indirectly, through visual images; yet the prose is gloating, vigorous, direct—the mirror of Wheeler’s own self-estimate.
The lineaments of this style were visible in Yates’s first collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Published a year after Revolutionary Road but written for the most part earlier, they are as precocious, as prematurely wise, as Fitzgerald’s early stories. There is the same ruminative casual voice, the same gift for dialogue, the same sly revelation of character through mannerisms and habits of speech. And though the young men featured in these stories were clearly versions of the author, they were by no means the sort of sensitive, vaguely literary personae one generally finds in the short stories of young writers. Indeed, one story about a writer begins with the shrewd disclaimer that “writers who write about writers can easily bring on the worst kind of literary miscarriage; everybody knows that.” Yates’s early stories were about the Army, a new boy’s humiliation in school, a shabby journalist on a labor newspaper; they were stories, like Fitzgerald’s, about the failures and humiliations that lodge forever in our memories because they contain the essence of our self-doubt.
On the evidence of these stories, Yates had found both his subject and his voice by the time he was in his early thirties. The voice was objective, idiomatic, detached; the subject, while not pointedly autobiographical, must have been his own life, for the same few situations recur in all his work: the father who failed in business; the childhood spent with a mother who thought of herself as an artist and led a strenuously bohemian life; the youthful stint in the Army during the last months of World War II; the writer forced to work at a dull job to support his wife and child. But many novelists, even great ones, repeat themselves; John Updike and Philip Roth have been writing more or less the same story for years. Through five novels and two collections of stories in a career that spans three decades, Yates has animated these situations with an obsessive force that conquers their familiarity.
THE STORIES IN Liars in Love reveal the same sure narrative voice that is at work in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Conversational and confiding, attentive to his characters’ idiosyncracies, Yates has an uncanny instinct for the pathos inherent in our efforts at dignity, our struggle to matter in the world. In “A Compassionate Leave,” a young soldier in Paris just after the war drifts through Pigalle in search of a prostitute and ends up singing in a bar with a crowd of drunken compatriots. “What the hell was supposed to be so great and beautiful about Paris anyway?” he thinks. “Had anybody yet confessed to being dismayed and bewildered and bored . . . and lonely as a bastard too?” In “Regards at Home,” a commercial illustrator from Brooklyn worries that his simplicity of character makes him uninteresting. Everyone seems to be in therapy, he confides to the narrator, a young writer whose marriage and apparently bohemian life he has idealized: “Because I mean what’s the deal on being ‘interesting’ in the first place? Are we all supposed to lie on a couch and spill our guts to prove how ‘interesting’ we are? That’s a degree of sophistication I don’t care to attain.” In “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired,” a boy’s cruel playmate, intent on demonstrating that his pet goldfish is swift enough to elude an arrow at close range, takes aim — and spears it. “I was too old to cry,” the boy remembers, “but something had to be done about the shock and rage and grief that filled me as I ran from the fountain. . .”
The trouble with this view of things is that it can become . . . well, depressing. Too much brutal dialogue, too much mean-spirited circumstance, wears a reader down. Yates is the bleakest writer I know. There is a quality of unremitting misery in his work, of thwartedness and self-deception, traumatic memories and squalor. In The Easter Parade and Disturbing the Peace, Yates gives such savage portraits of his characters’ inadequacies that one no longer cares about them; having nervous breakdowns, sopping up gin, they seem beyond salvaging. The novelist, like the tyrant, has complete authority over his subjects, and must rule with at least occasional benevolence or risk revolt. It isn’t enough to claim accuracy, to reproduce an alcoholic’s haggard speech or a failed artist’s delusions of fame; there must be some tempering sense of grace or pity.
Too many of the stories in Liars in Love lack that impulse. The husband in “A Natural Girl,” whose young wife interrupts a tedious soliloquy about his work to announce that she is leaving him, is simply a lout, a narcissistic boor; and the same goes for the rich, bored Hollywood types in “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” whose cheerless, arid self-deprecation recalls Fitzgerald’s Pat Hobby, a prisoner of that milieu during an earlier era. A wearisome air of self-disgust clings to the laconic, hard-drinking men Yates is so fond of writing about; they know themselves, but are smug in their self-knowledge, ironic about their degradation.
Of course, that style of self-irony is fashionable now. Contemporary American writers, Christopher Lasch noted in The Culture of Narcissism, have adopted a confessional ironic pose that “waives the right to be taken seriously, at the same time escaping the responsibilities that go with being taken seriously.” Yates’s literary characters, in particular, tend to view their experience as a mere parody of great writers’ lives. “Colby knew, from having read The Sun Also Rises in high school, that the Left Bank was where everything nice was most likely to happen,” he writes in “A Compassionate Leave.” The novelist in “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” who has gone to Hollywood to try his hand at a screenplay, lies in bed beside his very ordinary girlfriend and wonders “if Sheilah Graham [Fitzgerald’s lover] had ever referred to someone as being ‘a very dear person.’ ” It is as if one can only pretend to emulate these literary heroes, since we live in a time when there are none.
Toward his more limited, ignorant characters Yates can be pitiless, even vindictive; but toward those who make an effort, however primitive, to retain their dignity—an English prostitute, a secretary who aspires to write radio plays—he is generous. They’re not to blame, he implies; life in general is a shabby affair. And it is in this relenting attitude that he reveals his mastery. A Special Providence, which contains some of the most vivid writing about World War II since The Naked and the Dead; A Good School (to my mind Yates’s finest novel since Revolutionary Road); and the best stories in Liars in Love possess a wry, muted, wistful quality that verges on the elegiac. The terrified, untrained soldiers sent over to France in the last months of the war, whose heroism arises more out of exhaustion and bewilderment than out of courage; the pathetic but loyal faculty of Dorset Academy, a third-rate prep school about to collapse: Yates is tolerant of these characters; his very awareness of their failings elicits a kind of authorial forbearance.
In “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired,” the first story in Liars in Love, a young girl describes to her little brother the sound of the city she hears around them just before sleep, “a kind of hum” produced by the “millions and millions of people in New York”—“Maybe talking,” as the girl imagines them, “. . . maybe putting their forks down on their plates if they’re having dinner, or dropping their shoes if they’re going to bed. . . .” The story closes with the children, shaken by one of their mother’s drunken tantrums, lying in bed and “listening for the faint, faint sound of millions.” In that desolate scene, Yates accomplishes what Fitzgerald did at his best: an evocation of life’s unbearable poignance, the way it has of nurturing hope and denying it, often in the same instant.