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Book Review: Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates

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Little gets past the eyes of Richard Yates. He is a writer who can take a dismal, ordinary set of characters and make them into real, flesh and bone beings, simply by the way he describes their patterns of behavior, their mannerisms, their dialogue. Cold Spring Harbor is his last novel, published in 1986, and it carries with it all the benefits of being a Yates novel: spare yet descriptive, insightful dialogue about seemingly “simple things,” peppered with his acute observational skills for human behavior.

After having read a number of his novels now, I might actually go out on a limb and say I’ve not seen (at least from any published writer I’ve read), anyone convey the “ordinary man” as well as Yates can. Surely there have been great novelists in the past who have covered these themes (Frank Norris, John Steinbeck, and Theodore Dreiser all come to mind), but each writer, who is no less great in his own right, did not have this set out as his primary agenda. Since the above three all deal primarily with social issues as they pertain to the larger aspects of society, Yates primarily deals with the social issues as they pertain to the individual. And I don’t think I’ve ever read a writer who possessed such a skill to the degree Yates does.

His books have an odd sense of poetry about them, even though his prose is not, in and of itself, lyrical. The text reads rather straightforward when examined up close, but it is only when one peers from a distance, and looks at the story as a whole, that the poetic quality in his work can be seen. Cold Spring Harbor deals with a not-so-nice family who is not-so nice to one another. Gloria is the loopy, alcoholic mother (supposedly based on Yates’ own mother), Evan is the somewhat mediocre loser with no real ambition (his passion is for cars and when he meets Rachel, he puts aside his own ambitions so he can marry her – though this is not necessarily a tragic thing, since we can tell he’s not someone who would ever reach any potential worth noting) and Rachel’s teen brother Phil also has issues of his own (such as spying on his sister when she’s with her husband).

There isn’t really any character in the book who is likeable or worthy of being liked, yet via way of Yates’ writing, and his ability to delve into the human psyche, readers come to empathize with them, even if they’re not worthy of our affection. Set in a small Long Island town, Evan’s father Charles is still bitter about not having received any “recognition” for his participation in World War I, so he spends much of his time distancing himself from others. After Rachel and Evan marry, they move in with Rachel’s mother (Gloria) and her brother (Phil). After having just recently watched the film A Trip To Bountiful, (based on the play by Horton Foote) the situations in Cold Spring Harbor reminded me a bit of that, in that both A Trip To Bountiful and Cold Spring Harbor involve families who are stressed due to their having to live in such close proximity to one another. Also, both works involve that which goes unsaid among the characters.

Of course, the difference is that A Trip To Bountiful has characters one can sympathize with (and like for that matter), while Cold Spring Harbor leaves one empathetic, though not sympathetic for these unlikable and, well, cold characters. While Cold Spring Harbor is an actual name of a town in New York, the name and what it evokes could not be more perfect for this book.

The penultimate scene and then ultimately what ends the book is especially memorable and powerful – Rachel is left to comfort her and Evan’s child, a baby boy that she tells is “a little marvel” for no other reason than the fact that this little boy is “going to be a man” someday. Yet what makes this all the bit ironic is that all the men in the book (and women for that matter) are, for lack of better words, nothing to write home about and arguably just losers. And given that this scene follows an incident of domestic abuse brought on by her husband Evan, leaves us readers with a solid slap in the face – on par to the one given to Rachel only moments before.

No one is safe in Cold Spring Harbor. Characters work to destroy their happiness, as well as those around them, all the while complaining that happiness eludes them. The fact that happiness is something that “springs” out of accomplishment and is ultimately something one has to work for is also something that has eluded them as well. Thus, the cycle continues. (All the more ironic is that as I write this, I am informed that Sylvia Plath’s son — Nicholas Hughes — has committed suicide). Finishing under 200 pages (182 to be exact) much happens in these little moments – they are memorable and real, crafted by someone with a great craft for storytelling. Read Yates. What more is there?

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About Jessica Schneider

  • This is a great review and a fascinating site. I recommend the short stories if you haven’t read them. Do visit my blog; you might be interested.

  • Phillip Routh

    Yates had the power to make me wince — perhaps because he would expose human weaknesses, things we’d rather hide. I say “we.” I shouldn’t be the only one wincing.
    I think his first novel (Revolutionary Road) and his last — which you did a fine review of, Jessica — are his best works. And some stories, as Kate points out, rank with the best.
    The last words of CSH — being the last published words Yates wrote — are painfully ironic.
    He died alone in a VA Hospital. Wonder if any of his writer “friends” — who have come out of the woodwork since his death — ever visited him.

  • Hi Phillip:

    Good hearing from you. Yates is especially good when it comes to structure, like in “The Easter Parade” how events move quickly, yet he distills the memorable moments. I’ve learned quite a bit from him when it comes to my own work.

  • Hi Jessica

    I just finished reading Cold Spring Harbor and I found your review evocative and a good read. I am a fan of Yates and his style of writing which you effectively describe as having “an odd sense of poetry about it…” even those it is prose. What also fascinates me about his stories is that even though so many of them are bleak from the very first word, there is a compelling force that draws one onward throughout the narrative even though one knows it will end sadly. With regard to your review I would take issue only with your comment that there isn’t a likeable character in the book.

    I grew very fond of Phil. Many of his likeable qualities included: his paying Mrs. Talmage for the bicycle with the first money he made from Costello’s; his unwillingness to completely put Flash in his place even though he didn’t like him and had several opportunities to do so; his scruple in not spying on his sister throughout the Summer until he is on his way out of the house, and then it is just a momentary peek which he immediately regrets. I am guessing that Phil is a fictional stand in for Yates himself as a boy of that age given what little I know of Yates’ biography. I have not read “A Good School” but it sounds to me like it might be ‘..the further adventures of Phil’.

    I thought your review was concise and effective, but I am puzzeled about your omission of Mary and Kathleen and the dynamic those characters represent for Evan as it evolves late in the story. Thanks for taking the time to write your review. I’m moving on to “A Good School”.