Dreams of bohemia aren't the only bacillus infecting Yates's characters. Many are forced, as was the author himself, to grapple with a real illness—tuberculosis. His stories provide a detailed picture of the last generation to suffer widely from the disease—and the first to have a good chance of surviving it. "No Pain Whatsoever" memorably depicts TB wards as places where "the sheets and the hospital pajamas were dyed yellow, to distinguish them from uncontaminated linen in the hospital laundry, and this combined with the pale green of the walls made a sickly color scheme." Against this jaundiced backdrop Yates played out a variety of dramas, from adultery to romance to homoerotic combat, showing how the disease created a sort of spiritual stasis in the midst of America's hurly-burly, suspending sufferers in a limbo where emotions were free to fester and multiply without the intercession of workaday concerns. Reading these stories in conjunction with Yates's equally fine works on boot camp and combat, one is struck by just how deeply the men of his generation were affected by varieties of enforced communalism. The tragedy of their lives—as seen in "Out With the Old," in which an infirm father cannot find the words to counsel his pregnant teenage daughter—is that this communalism fails to cure the men of their loneliness. Tom Brokaw and his fellow generational enthusiasts would have us believe that this mandatory postwar togetherness made for a closer-knit, less alienated society, but Yates's work reminds us that the essential solitude at the heart of the American enterprise has never been easily escaped. His characters are always bowling alone, whether in the company of others or not.
Given the enduring integrity of his vision, it is not surprising that Yates's popularity now looks set to rival (if not to outstrip) that of O'Hara and Kerouac, whose reputations so often eclipsed his during his lifetime. Not only have his stories finally been collected into a single volume but his two best novels—Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade—are also being reprinted with much fanfare. Although contemporary critics were eager to label Yates a social realist, we can now understand that realism was only his means to a deeper end. Whereas O'Hara's fulminations against status-seeking and Kerouac's rogue posturing are showing their age, Yates's writing retains the power to disturb us. There is a timeless honesty to his work; one need not know about Levittown or Tupperware parties or George Shearing to enter its emotional universe. The manner in which he describes an aging midwestern housewife in "A Natural Girl" is typical of the way his work starts out planted in the black-and-white reality of the 1950s, only to blossom into literary perpetuity.
There wasn't much left of her once-lustrous hair except what the hairdresser could salvage and primp; her body sagged in some places and was bloated in others. She looked like what she was: a woman who'd been called Mother in shrill, hungering voices for most of her life.
The sentence starts out with the language of postwar Madison Avenue ("lustrous," "primp") and moves into the universal, flattening the reader with that heartbreakingly capitalized noun. This ability to move from the specific to the universal can be seen in the collection's best story, "Liars in Love," about a love affair between a young American Fulbright scholar and an inexperienced working-class prostitute in 1953 London. The story is shot through with period references to the Rosenbergs and Joe McCarthy. It graphically re-creates postwar London as a place of crowded buses, raucous pubs, and "evil-smelling sulphurous fog that stained everything yellow, that seeped through closed windows and doors to hang in your rooms and afflict your wincing, weeping eyes." But as the two lovers find themselves trapped in a complex network of mutual deception, the period detail slowly begins to fade, the prose becomes less time-bound, and the action moves from bustling Piccadilly to featureless bedrooms and lounges that could be anywhere, anytime.