Book Review: Readings
Publisher:Henry Holt and Company
Reviewed by Scott Blackwood, Fri., June 29, 2001
The Collected Stories of Richard Yatesby Richard Yates; introduction by Richard Russo
Holt, 472 pp., $28
Though literary giants Richard Ford, Robert Stone, and Andre Dubus have long praised his work, Richard Yates' short stories have been out of print for 12 years. It took novelist Stuart O'Nan's eloquent appeal in the Boston Review in 1999 to get the ball rolling again. Finally, this May, Henry Holt published The Collected Stories of Richard Yates, and writers everywhere are breathing a little easier, at least for the moment. Why is Yates, who died in 1992, one of the best short story writers you've probably never read? Richard Yates is scary. Reading a Yates story is like having to face up to all the times you've betrayed your best self. You squirm. You want to look away. Yates has found you out: that time when you belittled an old girlfriend or boyfriend to avoid embarrassing yourself, that not-quite-so-drunk-as-you-pretend pass at your married neighbor, those moments when you're nothing but a "horse trader," more than willing, as novelist Richard Russo says in the collection's introduction, "to move up in the world by swapping a shabby job, house, friend, spouse, even child, for a newer, better one."
Most writers sense that they, too, could be temporarily lost to a whole generation of readers if publishers look only to the bottom line (Yates sold poorly throughout his life), and if readers mistake literary cleverness for seriousness (Yates has never been fashionable). And make no mistake, Yates has a moral vision of the world that demands your attention; he doesn't seem to care a bit how uncomfortable this vision makes you. His stories and novels trace the fault lines of this world back to our flawed hearts, and what he finds there is simple and terrifying and indelibly human: that our weak-kneed fear of being alone causes us to hide from ourselves and one another.
In one of the collection's best and most emblematic stories, "Dr. Jack-o-lantern," Vincent Sabella, a kid with green teeth from a poor New York City neighborhood, has come to the suburbs filled with the terrifying sense of separateness that all Yates' characters experience to one degree or another. (Yates is particularly good at understanding the cruelty and terrors of childhood.) After listening to a classmate give a class report on a trip to see the movie Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Vincent "samples" part of the classmate's tale and weaves it into his own more outlandish one, but calls the movie Dr. Jack-o-lantern instead. The class erupts into squeals of laughter because, as Yates' narrator says, "for one thing it proved that he was a hopeless dope and for another it proved he was lying." From then on, you have the feeling you're re-entering a bad dream from childhood:Recess was worse than usual for [Vincent] that day; at least it was until he found a place to hide -- a narrow concrete alley, blind except for several closed fire-exit doors, that cut between two sections of the school building. It was reassuringly dismal and cool in there -- he could stand with his back to the wall and his eyes guarding the entrance, and the noises of recess were as remote as the sunshine. Like Vincent Sabella, all of Yates' characters seem to be standing in the same blind alley, anxiously guarding its entrance. In "A Really Good Jazz Piano," Ken Platt witnesses his hipster friend Carson's cruelty to a black piano player, and sees Carson (and himself) as if for the first time:It wasn't what [Carson] said that mattered -- for a minute it seemed that nothing Carson said would ever matter again -- it was that his face was stricken with the uncannily familiar look of [Ken's] own heart, the very face that he -- Lard Ass Platt -- had shown all his life to others: haunted and vulnerable and terribly dependent, trying to smile, a look that said Please don't leave me alone. This paralyzing fear of being alone causes many of Yates' characters to self-consciously cling to roles rather than lives. In "A Glutton for Punishment," Walter Henderson, who, as a boy playing cops and robbers, "thought playing dead was the very zenith of romance," comes to almost fetishize the role of the loser, and remains a "strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse." His shock at discovering his own character ("It suddenly struck him ... that letting things happen and taking them gracefully had been, in a way, the pattern of his life ...") would be a fairly mundane tragedy if not paired with his comic enthusiasm for playing the loser ("he had specialized in ... gamely losing fights with stronger boys, playing football in the secret hope of being injured and carried dramatically off the field"). Through a kind of pathetic earnestness, Yates creates a form of bleak comedy that later shows up in the works of Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.
Recently in The New York Times Book Review, Michiko Kakutani commented that Yates' stories betrayed "a sameness and limited emotional vocabulary when read, one after the other." True enough. This sameness (his charactersí fatalism), though, seems like a strength rather than a weakness, and the stories' "limited emotional vocabulary" might, under more generous eyes, be called thematic "obsessions," as they are in his former student Andre Dubus' work. Like Walter Henderson in "A Glutton for Punishment," eternally in love with the attitudes of collapse, Yates' characters are not going to escape themselves -- but we know that from the beginning. The real spell that Yates casts is his ability, through clear, deceptively simple prose, to put you through the experience of being utterly alone. And though we might think, as the lonely 18-year-old Paul Colby does in the gently sad "A Compassionate Leave," that in playing a role, we might find ourselves or others, Yates makes clear that this is only one more layer of self-deception. When a uniformed Paul Colby fails to get laid during a three-day leave in Paris and finds himself broke and alone, he thinks "he couldn't afford even the most raucous of middle-aged whores now, and he knew he'd probably arranged in his secret heart for this to be so." It's not lady luck or others who let us down, as some of Yates' characters believe, but our own secret hearts.
And we might not even recognize good luck if it bit us, Yates seems to say in stories like "Jody Rolled the Bones," in which "Jody" embodies the soldier's "faithless friend, the soft civilian to whom the dice-throw of chance had given everything [he] held dear." The soldier narrator, who at first believes Jody always has the last laugh, comes to see, in retrospect, his own failure at soldiering (which he'd begun to appreciate) as a failure of his commitment to things, to life's seriousness. Though they've been lucky to have had a tough platoon leader, the young soldiers only appreciate the "good joes," who are lax leaders and who may cost them their lives later in combat. So, in the end, the soldiers strike an all too familiar pose -- they retreat into irony: "Who the hell wants to be a soldier? Not me, we could all say in our hearts, not this chicken, and our very defiance would dignify the attitude."
Richard Yates isn't a stylist. His prose is straightforward. Like Chekhov's language, Yates' is nearly invisible; it gives way to the emotional arc of the story. "Old-fashioned," many critics called it in the Seventies, missing, of course, that Yates followed no literary trends or postmodern principles because, as he said in an interview, "I know [postmodernism] provides endless supply of witty little intellectual puzzles and puns ... for graduate students to play with, but it's emotionally empty. It isn't felt." Back when other writers, many now long forgotten, were bent on formal innovation, Yates clung to what he felt mattered: writing stories with a clear-eyed moral vision of the world. Dead now nine years and out of print for 12, Yates is back to scare the bejesus out of a whole new generation.
Scott Blackwood's debut collection of short stories, In the Shadow of Our House, will be published by SMU Press in August.