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Book Review: Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

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This is the fifth novel from Richard Yates I’ve read, and although I still have two more to go, I am wondering if Yates is merely a “Two Hit Novel Novelist,” with his greatest homeruns being Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade. Granted, anyone will tell you that two hits is better than one (or like many fiction writers today: none), but Yates, along with Kazuo Ishiguro and Milan Kundera, seems to have so far achieved two great novels, while the rest of the books by those writers remain near misses.

Having said that, it must be considered that Yates doesn’t have any poorly written novels. They all are, if not great, then at least good. I would rank Disturbing the Peace as his weakest work I’ve read thus far, mainly because the lead character, John Wilder, and the interactions he shares among those close to him not as fleshed out nor are the characters themselves as memorable as those in Yates’ better novels. John Wilder is basically an alcoholic who is suffering from mental problems, and much of the book takes place within an asylum setting. The last book I read that touched upon this subject was Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted, and although that is a work of non-fiction and Disturbing the Peace is fiction, this book does not have as memorable a group of characters as those in Kaysen’s book, and there are times the Yates' novel dips into a bit of melodrama.

Yet that is not to say that this book is void of the many Yatesian qualities that define his books as the worthy works they are, containing, as it does, moments of realistic dialogue, bits of insight and subtle exchanges among the characters, and well-structured scenes. These positive qualities in Disturbing the Peace, though, are heavily diluted by the many moments of so-called “insanity” befalling the lead character, as well by his inability to control his alcoholism, coupled with his lack of ambition. In other words, the very things that should have taken a backseat to the narrative are instead thrust upon us. The topics that Yates deals so well with are in fact human failures — lack of drive and ambition, among character weaknesses — all of which are generally accomplished while creating a sympathetic portrait of these individuals. Readers may not like them, but Yates is able to craft them as such that at least readers will come to understand them, and perhaps even empathize with them a bit.

Unfortunately, Disturbing The Peace has less of all that, and more focus is given to the problems themselves, (alcoholism, insanity, etc.) rather than the impacts those problems carry. John’s wife Janice is pretty much a cipher in the book, and their marriage is not ever defined in such ways that Yates was able to accomplish in The Easter Parade between the lead character, Emily Grimes, and her loser husbands/boyfriends. In fact, it’s been a few months since I’ve read The Easter Parade, and only a day since Disturbing The Peace, and I’ve already forgotten most of the characters in the latter subject at hand; whereas those in The Easter Parade still remain fresh.

Disturbing The Peace is still a solid book, though it’s not one I recommend for anyone new to Yates. It is ironic too that this book is at least a hundred pages longer than Cold Spring Harbor (one of his better novels that falls just shy of greatness) but Disturbing The Peace feels not as fleshed out. These two novels share very similar qualities (where the lead lacks any real drive in life and alcoholism lingers), but again, Cold Spring Harbor dealt more with the impact of the problems, while Disturbing The Peace focuses on the problems themselves, and lacks some of the subtlety of the former novel.

Yates is not a hit and miss sort of novelist. His books are all, to some degree, hits, though some are definitely better hits than others. Disturbing The Peace is a solid hit, and certainly a book worth reading, though I recommend doing so once his better works have already been visited. One of the unfortunate results of when a writer accomplishes greatness is that readers then will hold that writer to a higher standard; and if that standard falls just shy, seemingly lackluster reviews result. Had this book been written by anyone else, I likely would have been more enthused, and even sought out other works. Though after broaching the books of Richard Yates, a writer who should and eventually will be lumped beside (and perhaps even surpass one day) the likes of Fitzgerald or Hemingway, being underwhelmed for a work as this can mean a good thing. And anyway, I still have two more books to go.

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