The Perceptually Sour
In the Paris Review, Tobias Wolff is compared to Richard Yates, and he discusses the idea that many people can't read a lot of Yates's work all at once: it is too pessimistic. Yet there are of course Yates stories that end quite optimistically. Perhaps none more so than the final tale in The Collected Stories, 'A Convalescent Ego', where the character of the title is off work with a long illness. Home alone, he breaks a cup and frets for the rest of the story about how negatively his wife will react. But at the conclusion she comes home, says that she hasn't been easy with him of late, and sees the broken cup as unimportant. "He didn't trust himself to speak, but he turned around and took her in his arms, and there was nothing sick and nothing tired about the way they kissed. This was the one thing he hadn't figured on, in all his plans - the one slim chance he had overlooked completely."
But there is in Yates' work a sourness of perception that could lead us to see despair even where happy conclusions reside. In 'A Convalescent Ego', Bill "sprang from the couch and stalked the floor, wrenching the sash of his bathrobe into angry knots. That would be exactly the wrong way to go about it. Why did he always play the fool? Why should he always set himself up for little humiliations like this? Oh, and she'd love every minute of it, wouldn't she..." At the beginning of 'Oh, Joseph, I'm so Tired', the narrator reflects back on his mother's life. "She wasn't a very good sculptor. She had been working at it for only three years, since breaking up her marriage to my father, and there was still something stiff and amateurish about her pieces." In 'Builders', the aspiring writer Bob and his wife go for dinner: "another time, toward the end of a curiously dull evening when we'd gone to our favourite premarital restaurant and failed for an hour to find anything to talk about, she tried to get the conversation going by leaning romantically toward me across the table and holding up her wineglass..." These are sour perceptions.
Introducing The Collected Stories, Richard Russo talks of Yates's brutal insight, quoting another writer Robert Lacey mentioning his "seemingly congenital inability to sugarcoat." Russo wonders if this was the reason why "Yates never sold well in his life and why, for a time at least, his fiction has been allowed to slip out of print..." Wikipedia claims that Yates's work never sold more than twelve thousand copies in hardback, and that his stories were constantly rejected by the New Yorker - well known for paying bountifully. As Andre Dubus says on The Richard Yates Archive, writing when Yates was still alive, "Richard Yates is one of our great writers with too few readers, and no matter how many readers he finally ends up with, they will still be too few, unless there are hundreds of thousands in most nations of the world. I have been his friend for thirty-three years, and he has most often needed money, and has never complained to me about that, or about anything else either." In this lovely short piece originally written for Black Warrior Review, Dubus offers an heroic tribute to a friend, with Dubus, like Wolff, a writer whose work would often be compared to Yates's.
Yet this short piece, like much of Dubus's own fiction, possesses an acuity, rather than acidity, that Yates's fiction often misses. Dubus excavates a hint of the inner life, while Yates is more inclined to hover around the external and provide acrid judgement. This doesn't lead however to a superior tone that would make the writing insufferable, but to a tone that incorporates the observer and often alludes to a certain form of suffering, of self-torture. In 'Saying Goodbye to Sally' the central character Jack observes how quickly his titular girlfriend's landlady Jill moves in on a man whose wife has just died and says, "look, a month or two from now it might be a thoughtful gesture, but the man's wife's only been dead two days." Later in the story Jill and the widower are together and Jill's ex is ousted from Jill's plush LA house. Jack's girlfriend says, "He looked dead...he looked like a man with all the life gone out of him." It is now Jack's turn to be cynical: "Well, okay, but look: this happens all the time. Women get tired of men; men get tired of women. You can't go around letting your heart get broken over all the losers." He might in the first instance judge harshly, but we may wonder whether within it is contained harsh judgement towards his own motives, while in the latter instance he is perhaps about to turn his girlfriend into a loser too. They are in a temporary relationship, while Jack's in Hollywood to work on a script. He is no longer with his wife, but it doesn't look as if he wants anything permanent with Sally either, and this plays up Sally's insecurities. Is he as pragmatic as Jill, and going to leave Sally feeling a lot like Jill's ex? As Sally says near the end of the story, "Know something funny? We've really been saying goodbye all along, since the very first time I went out with you. Because I mean we've always known there wasn't much time, so it's been a saying goodbye kind of deal from the start, right." Jack replies: "I guess so." Jack's comment about Jill's ex might be cruel, but it isn't so very different from Jack's tone throughout the story, a tale told in the third person but from his point of view. He isn't superior to the other characters, but he is probably the most lucid in understanding his feelings and accepting them for what they are worth, even exaggerating a selfishness that really cannot be compared to Jill's ruthless gesture. As Russo notes in his introduction, quoting a line from Yates's work, the writer allows us to see "the clear light of self-hatred."
This is often evident in the writerly figures Yates sometimes takes as his main characters. The first person narrator might say at the beginning of 'Builders' "writers who write about writers can easily bring on the worst kind of literary miscarriage", but he guarantees that "he won't get away with being the only Sensitive Person among the characters", perhaps because there aren't too many of these to be found in Yates' work generally." Yates sometimes directly invokes Hemingway's name (in, say, 'Builders' and 'A Compassionate Leave') and on occasion Fitzgerald's (who is central to 'Saying Goodbye to Sally', and mentioned in 'Builders'), but the sensibility is generally more Ernest than F. Scott. Even if a character clearly possesses a sensitive nature, it is shown to be absorbed into a coarser one. In 'A Really Good Jazz Piano', Yates makes his central consciousness Ken a caring enough soul, but his need for Carson's friendship makes Ken view the world with some of his friend's cynical dismissiveness. "Ken is the fat one who tagged along", "Carson was the handsome one, the one with the slim, witty face and the English-sounding accent". Here they are Americans abroad, in France with Ken running out of money and Carson spending some of the plenty he has. But whatever decency Ken has in him, he needs Carson for his place in society. It is a bartender at the beginning of the story who notes Carson's handsomeness and Ken's girth, but it could be Ken's own observation, and he also adopts Carson's mannerisms as well as following him around. "Ken tried a squinty smile like Carson's own", the narrator tells us. This isn't quite Ken's point of view, but seems unlikely to be very far removed from how he sees himself. It is as though Yates wants to find in this story told from several different perspectives, the most consistently bleak angles. When he goes into Carson's mind he does so to show us not only how he but how people generally see Ken: "What was it about Ken that put people off...Was it just that he was fat and physically awkward, or that he could be strident and silly in his eagerness to be liked?" "Carson guessed the closest he could come to a real explanation was the fact that when Ken smiled his upper lip slid back to reveal a small moist inner lip that trembled against his gum."
Yet near the end of the story Carson's behaviour finally brings out Ken's dismay, even disdain, while holding to Yates' cruel character sketching. After arriving in Cannes a few days before Carson, Ken has discovered a great jazz bar that he wants to show his friend, feeling that by finding it he has proved he can cope on his own. On the first night the black jazz pianist Sid plays well and Ken, Carson and Sid's girlfriend Jacqueline have a great time. The next night Ken and Carson go, though, there is a Las Vegas agent there, and Sid plays to the prospective Vegas crowd, trying to impress the agent with music and an attitude that turns Carson's stomach. A little later Sid gives them a big hello, and Carson offers in return a huge snub, feeling that Sid is playing the subservient black man to the white agent, and sucking up to Ken and Carson as fellow whites. Ken and Carson then leave, but where Carson saunters out smoothly, Ken can't meet Jacqueline's gaze, and sways in the smoke as he desperately escapes. "For a minute it seemed that nothing Carson said would ever matter again", and yet Ken sees on Carson's face when he seems to notice Ken's annoyance, a desperate look. "It was that his face was stricken with the uncannily familiar look of his own heart, the very face he himself, Lard-Ass Platt, had shown all his life to others: haunted and vulnerable and terribly dependent..." We might wonder whether Carson's earlier observation about Ken's moist inner lip also reflected Carson's own insecurities. Nobody comes out very well in the story: Sid is shown to be obsequious and the agent he ingratiates himself with is described thus: "a chubby bald man with a deep tan, a man so obviously Murray Diamond that a casting director might have sent him here to play the part."
In a Guardian review of Yates' 1964 collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Nicolas Lezard's piece has the title, "A Wonderful Talent for Misery", but we're interested more in the perspective of the stories than the narrative. Thus much of this misery Lezard mentions comes from the way Yates views characters: that he is the sort of writer who isn't likely to let the reader feel he misses much in a person's behaviour or appearance. This isn't because the writer is hypersensitive; more that Yates's narrators are hypercritical. There is a Hemingwayesque directness to Yates's descriptions which assume that what you see is what you get as long as you look astutely enough. This has little to do with great insight or feeling; more about assuming a set of human motivations and characteristics and being sharp enough to spot them. When Einstein was given a Kafka book by Thomas Mann, according to Alfred Kazin in On Native Grounds, he promptly returned it saying human beings aren't that complex, he would have been probably happier with a Yates tome. Yet there are writers who are never quite confident in their description not because they assume they aren't up to the task of observation, but because the task is so complex that they must view it with suspicion. In On A Dark Night I Left My Silent House Peter Handke's narrator wonders why he has always been reluctant to describe people, but looking at Handke's work more generally it isn't that he won't offer description; it is that he can't but accept any observation belongs to the subject rather than the object. He sees perception as a liquid state, and like Sartre in Nausea, Kafka in any number of stories, Handke writes with the tension evident between subject and object, where Hemingway, however brilliant, and Yates, do not. When Hemingway offers his views on numerous writers and artists in A Moveable Feast, he doesn't offer them tentatively but assertively. "Ezra Pound was always a good friend and always doing things for people...He liked the works of his friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but disastrous as judgement." "On this day Zelda did not look her best. Her beautiful dark-blonde hair had been ruined temporarily by a bad permanent she had got in Lyon, when the rain had made them abandon their car, and her eyes were tired and her face was taut and drawn." But as Irish Murdoch says in her short book on Sartre: "The hero of La Nausee saw language and the world as hopelessly divided from each other. 'The world remains on my lips: it refuses to go and rest upon the thing.'" As Murdoch adds, "language was an absurd structure of sounds and marks behind which lay an overflowing, undiscriminated chaos: the word which pretended to classify the infinitely and unclassifiably existent..."
Yates is a writer who feels not only that he can classify, but also feels confident in certain values within that classification. As we've said, however, this doesn't lead at all to condescension (there is no sense there is a Yatesian narrative voice superior to his characters), but it can lead to assumption and safety within language. Yates knows who people are and what they are worth, and believes language can do a pretty good job of showing up their faults and foibles. As Russo says, "the truth is Richard Yates is not a sophisticated writer. He doesn't need to be: he's far too talented to have much use for smoke or mirrors." But let us take sophisticated here to mean a high degree of complexity, and think of Einstein's comment about Kafka's book: "I couldn't read it; the human mind isn't that complex." Would Yates have said much the same?
Let us not speculate too far, but there is in Yates's work an interest in emotional immediacy and practical necessity that limits or contains the material according to taste. When Russo compares Yates with Fitzgerald he indicates they are both interested in dreamers, but where the term might stick with Yates it surely seems an over-simplification of Fitzgerald's work. Frequently Fitzgerald's characters are not dreamers looking to the future, but achievers dreaming much more of their past. Jay Gatsby has it all, but what is lost is a past that he wishes could be returned to him - glorious moments with Daisy that he was previously too poor to possess. In The Last Tycoon Monroe Stahr is rich and yet empty, symbolised in the magnificent house that is still unfinished. The dreamer is usually someone who expects a wondrous future without putting in the hard graft of achieving it. Both Gatsby and Monroe are self-made men left wondering what happens to be the self they have made. They want their dreams back; they haven't failed to put in the effort to get them. Fitzgerald takes an everyday word like the dreamer and an everyday phrase like the American dream and interrogates them. Yates' characters are simpler people, looking for a break, trying to get on, holding marriages together and putting words on the page, making ends meet and coping with getting a bit older. These aren't negligible areas of exploration, but they aren't very complex either. We might sometimes sense reading Yates' work that we would want to invert Einstein's remark: that people are more complex than that.
In Yates' world a person isn't so much complex and events manifold as a character non-cliched and stories unobvious. In 'Builders', a New York cabbie the central character meets has some great stories but needs someone to knock them into narrative shape. The narrator writes one of them up about a widower sobbing in Bernie's cab. The man's been feeling horribly lonely for the last twenty two years, his daughter has long since left home and got a life of her own in Michigan, and now, on the day the cabbie gives him a lift, he's just been told the company no longer needs him. All he's got left in his life is tending to his geraniums. The Brooklyn Bridge beckons: will the man kill himself? The cabbie proves a friend in need, telling the old man that he couldn't possibly be a burden to anyone, that surely his daughter and her family could do with a man to tend to their flowers, and a few months later a heavy package arrives with a Michigan postmark at the cabbie's apartment. It is a potted geranium and a thank you. The narrator reckons the story is "loathsome", but accepts that it is well structured rubbish. These are stories with walls and windows and a chimney on top, however obvious. What Yates seems to admire though is the structure but with less obvious elements incorporated.
Russo talks about the "beauty and symmetry of Yates's stories that will send readers all the way back to Chekhov for antecedents..." before also invoking Carver. But symmetry can be a dangerous thing, as Yates suggests in the telling of Bernie's little anecdote. If Chekhov and Carver are such great writers it lies in the symmetrical serving the temporal in the Russian writer's work; the symmetrical serving the ineffable in Carver's stories. The problem of time surrounds Chekhov's tales; the problem of silence is often evident in Carver's. In Yates's work there appears to be no underpinning problem that makes his stories singular, and we can read them believing that of course he wouldn't write anything as crass as Bernie's tales, but this resides in technical skill and professional intelligence more than a singularity that makes his work especially memorable. What gives the stories their symmetry is often the idea that people aren't that complicated, and so by the end of the story realizations are offered and insight modestly present.
To show how Yates achieves this let us look at 'Oh Joseph I'm So Tired', 'The Canal', 'The Comptroller and the Wild Wind', and 'Saying Goodbye to Sally'. In 'Oh Joseph I'm so Tired', the story is narrated by a man looking back on his seven-year old self during the Depression. His mother and father have split up, and mum is the struggling sculptor without much talent. She is part of a Greenwich village set, and the boy, and the man, see through the people with a mixture of insight at the time and with the aid of recollection. The mother, Helen is entering her forties and gets the opportunity to do a Roosevelt sculpture but tells him that actually she voted for Hoover instead of the president-elect. She seems less honest than reckless, perhaps aided by a drink problem that the narrator discloses: "she was then at the onset of a long battle with alcohol that she would ultimately lose..." The narrator himself has a stutter that he will also, more fortuitously lose, but it is mocked by a friend of Helen's, Sloane, who reads out a piece of work discussing the various people in her mother's circle. When she gets to the narrator, she makes a series of contorted sounds mimicking his speech impediment. The mother has been mocked too, indirectly by Bart Kampen, the kids' tutor, who tells a friend who inadvertently tells Helen, thinking Kampen was talking about someone else, that this guy Kampen reckoned the depression was over for him because he met a rich, crazy woman who was paying him to tutor the children. Helen confronts him, telling the Jewish Kampen, "None of my friends are Jews, or ever will be."
Like 'A Really Great Jazz Piano', a character's troublesome nature is exposed through racism, and a main character comes to see the vulnerability of another one, no matter their prejudicial perspective. A couple of pages before the end of this twenty-page story, the narrator says: "she was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy." A moment of prolepsis also hints at pathos: "all she had to look forward to now was her romance with Eric Nicholson, and I think she may have known even then that it was faltering ? his final desertion came the next fall." The story takes a period of time in a boy's life, and shapes it round a hint of reminiscence all the better to play up the mother's delusions and the story's poignancy. A seven-year-old couldn't inform us that "she was confident about everything she did in those days, but it never quite disguised a terrible need for support and approval on every side." Or, after hearing from a friend that Kampen thought she was crazy: "I can picture how she looked riding the long, slow train back to New York that afternoon...her eyes round and her face held in a soft shape of hurt." Technically, the story works between a boy and a man's point of view according to the needs of the emotional effect and narrative arc. When the narrator runs to his mum after his fish dies, he says "I bent my head into her waist and didn't stop crying until long after I'd felt her hands stroking my back, until after she had assured me that goldfish didn't cost much, and I'd have another soon, and that John was sorry for the thoughtless thing he'd done." This is the rush of a sentence as child-like divulgence. It gives the story a strong feeling of the present whilst also accommodating time past. This doesn't at all lead to a Chekhovian problem with time; the story's skill lies in not making us aware of it.
'The Canal' reads a little like Carver's 'What We Talk About When we Talk about Love'. Here it is a corporate office party with two couples talking. The men go on to discuss their war experiences, but where Betty Miller sees Tom and Nancy Brace as bores, Lew Miller slowly appears to see something valid in Tom's recollections. Where initially he feels that "they had been cornered for nearly an hour with the Braces, whom they knew only slightly", by the end of the story he is much more irritated by his wife. As Tom mentions that he too was involved in the taking of a canal in March '45, Lew listens. He's never been one to talk about his experiences, and by the end, his wife says, "those damn conceited Brace people. Darling why do you let an ass like that eclipse you so in conversation." Lew replies "Will you do me a favour...Will you shut up? Will you please for God's sake shut up?" Whatever motive Brace had for telling the story, Betty Miller has turned it into an act of one-upmanship and is disappointed her husband didn't rise to the challenge. Here are two WWII veterans at a party discussing the horrors of war and Betty just sees the battle they discuss as a means for chest thumping superiority. It is a good story of misplaced priorities and marital misunderstanding, but next to Carver's tale of two couples sitting around drinking gin it suggests a light squabble rather than a human depth charge. In Carver's story, Mel and Terri start talking about Terri's ex, while the narrator and his partner listen. Mel talks about how Terri's ex, pining for Terri, shot himself in the head and died three days later as the conversation turns on love and the heart in various manifestations. By the end of the story the narrator says, " I could hear my heart beating. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark." This isn't the sub-text at work evident in Yates's story where the war anecdote hints at other problems, this is the excavation of love that leaves the characters wiped out and unable to speak, unable to move. It is a heart of emotional darkness, that might ostensibly look technically weak next to Yates's story (where is the indirectness, where is the sub-text?) but that over a dozen pages just keeps digging.
In 'The Comptroller and the Wild Wind', George Pollack's wife leaves him and Yates give a brisk back story account of their marriage. "A long time ago he had married a girl with splendid long legs and a face that was described as pert...The girl had borne his child...but the child had died. Everyone agreed that she took it very well, and nothing between them changed." They don't have another child, but "the girl continued to worry about him and listen to his plans and keep house for him..." Eventually she has enough and leaves, saying that "I've never felt unfaithful to you George, don't you see? What was there to be unfaithful to." George seems to have been for years in his own world, "a pompous, posturing, fussy little man" his wife tells him as she goes. There is little to suggest she is wrong, and can George really deny that he has been thinking wistfully of a pretty Irish waitress in his regular lunch eatery, and what about all those nights at the club playing cards? By the end of the story it is early evening after work, George is drunk and he humiliates himself in front of the waitress he adores. His dreamy thoughts don't at all match the reality. He envisages himself speaking easily to her, saying "Look, why don't you telephone your home and come to dinner with me", but the reality is brutal. When he propositions her she announces she is in a hurry, and when he makes a move to hold her arm the waitress tells him: "I don't like to be grabbed that way." She reacts with entirely understandable dismay at his lurching, drunken pass, but George is a deluded man that reality is playing catch-me-up with. The last line of the story announces "that he had absolutely no idea where he was going." The reader is never in any doubt that George is an ageing man finally coming to terms with this reality, and the story is a lovely exploration of his state. But he is a much less complicated dreamer than Fitzgerald's, partly because there is little of the temporal tragedy we often find in writers like Fitzgerald and Chekhov. The tragic trajectory here is much more straightforward.
Yates's relationship with point of view is often interesting: as we've noted in 'A Really Great Jazz Piano', the narrative perspective shifts according to the situation Yates wants to point up. If he wants to show Ken from the outside he can go to the barman or to Carson; if he wants to illustrate Carson's cruelty he can show it from Ken's sense of disappointment. In 'Saying Goodbye to Sally' the perspective is central character Jack's. Instead of focalising, instead of moving from one point of view to another, by concentrating on Jack's world, Yates paradoxically also gives subtler space to that of others: it is quite literally Yates's most perceptive story. It is the one in which there are more perceptual observations, rather than underlying character assumptions. "Until an hour before dawn that night he sat drinking in his chill, damp bedroom, hearing the surf and breathing the mildew from his hundred year old mattress, allowing himself to entertain the thought that he might be a self-destructive personality after all. What saved him, enabling him to lie down and cover himself with sleep at last, was his knowledge that any number of sanctimonious people had agreed to hang that bleak and terrible label on F. Scott Fitzgerald." In a story that shows a writer trying his hand in Hollywood, Yates isn't only good on introspection, but also inspection, observation and retrospection. The central character can see his room for what it is, enquires into the nature of others, observes an alien LA environment with eyes anew, and looks back on his ex-wife and two kids with some wisdom. Whether it is describing the layout of Jill's apartment or the loss the ex feels when Jill takes up with the new man, this is the very sensitive character Yates is so often suspicious of. Sally's room alone is "as big as three rooms put together, and the ceiling was uncommonly high. The walls were a subtle shade of pale blue that the professional decorator must have considered "right" for Sally, though much of the wall space was given over to glass: huge gilt-framed mirrors on one side and an LA-shaped display of French windows along two others, with heavy curtains poised to glide and sweep across their panes."
In this story that frequently and openly acknowledges the former presence of Fitzgerald in LA, Yates possesses something of Fitzgerald's acute perception. He is allowing the writer to be the most sensitive character in the story. At one moment in the tale Sally is talking as she often does about Jill, when he decides to hold "the phone well away from his head [so that] Sally's voice would dwindle and flatten out and be lost in tinny gibberish, like the voice of an idiot midget." Yet after "holding the phone that way for five or ten seconds, flinching in the pain of his secret betrayal...he abandoned the experiment just in time to hear her say...'I love you and I need you.'" Here the betrayal is all the more pronounced because of Sally's declaration, but Jack is wise to it anyway.
The story still has structure, but it is one clearly shaped by the few months that Jack has to spend in LA working on the script, and perhaps this story allows Yates a twofold luxury. Firstly that his character needn't worry so much about money, and secondly that Jack can feel out of time and out of place. It gives to a Yates character a less deterministic feel than most, and allows for more surprise in the reader. When Jack leaves Sally at the end of the piece he is chiefly leaving the city: the structure of the tale comes from the time he spends away from New York. It feels contained by ready temporal limits, yet Yates manages within this restricted time frame to create a higher degree of perceptual possibilities than usual: it is like time slightly removed.
Yates might have influenced other writers that came after him like Dubus and Carver, which indicates a figure of no small merit, but if we feel that Dubus and Carver push further into the problem of character in Dubus's case, and the limits of what can be said in Carver's, that leaves Yates more as a foundation than anything else. He is not the sort of incapacitating influence writers like Joyce and Beckett have been seen to be by Yates's contemporary Donald Barthelme: with Joyce and Beckett so distinctive, so capable of carving up so much new space in literature that those coming afterwards fret over not only what can they do to match it, but what it is exactly that has been done. When Barthelme says of Beckett "he seems to be asking for an art adequate to the intuition of Nothingness" (Paris Review) this is a lot harder to acknowledge as influence than someone who is good with character sketching, getting people in and out of rooms, or setting up a compact time pattern. Yates isn't bad on the latter aspects but contributes nothing to the former. What makes somebody like Carver interesting is that he would seem to be in the Yates tradition, yet at the same time managed to have an intuition of nothingness also. This is not simply to evaluate Yates, to place him in the lowest rung of the literary ladder, but it is to suggest that while reading Yates is a very engaging experience, no matter the harshness of his worldview, he remains a minor figure next to the writers he invokes (Hemingway and Fitzgerald), and even next to those who came after him. Yet of course everyone has their own canon, and perhaps some would place Yates much more highly within theirs. And yet.
© Tony McKibbin