Something happens with every Richard Yates book I read. I sit down to read it, and I find myself unable to be pulled away. This first occurred when I read his 1961 gem of a novel Revolutionary Road, and now the same has occurred for his 1976 novel Easter Parade.
For a number of years, Yates’ novels were out of print. They did not sell well upon their initial publication, and Revolutionary Road even lost the National Book Award. This does not surprise me; it only shows that the public rarely appreciates quality when it is in front of them, and it is only upon the passage of years when people can finally take notice of how great and talented someone was in their day.
On a surface level, Yates’ story lines seem to be rather standard. Revolutionary Road, for example, deals with the unhappiness of a married couple, as they feel trapped in suburbia. Of course the novel is so much more than that, and coupled with Yates’ great skill for dialogue and character observation, his work becomes so much more than what a mere plot summary or “book pitch” could ever offer.
In fact, Yates is by far one of the best writers who deal with the “averageness” of people and everyday life, yet he manages to make them flesh and bone beings. He knows just how to add in the deeper moments of insight via way of his characters’ dialogue and their observations that are seemingly plain spoken, yet not.
To quote my earlier review of Revolutionary Road: “What makes Revolutionary Road work so well is that the scenes are so believable and not laced in melodrama, and nor does Yates go without humor or condescend to his audience. He merely lets the scenes play out and speak for themselves rather than trying to bathe the narrative with triteness and clichés.”
The same can be said for Easter Parade. The novel, finishing just under 230 pages, is as tight as can be. His prose is spare and crisp and nothing is wasted. He also knows what to leave out. In fact, much of what goes on in Yates’ novels (and likewise what can be said about Yates himself as a writer) is revealed by what he does not tell us. If you’ve ever recorded soap operas and then find yourself fast-forwarding certain scenes because you know what the characters are saying — all this is of course just “filler” for daytime television. Yet there are no “filler” moments in Yates’ novels. Here is an example that involves a scene with the lead character, Emily, as she is debating on when she should break up with this guy she is involved in:
“It was clear that she couldn’t tell him now. She waited two or three days, until she was damned if she’d wait any longer, and then she said it. ‘Things aren’t right; I think we both know that. I’ve decided the best thing to do…’
She could never afterwards remember how she finished that sentence, or what reply he made to it, or what she said next. She remembered only his brief show of raffish indifference and then his rage, when he shouted and threw a whiskey glass against the wall—he seemed to feel he might get her to stay if only they had a loud enough quarrel—and then his collapse into pleading: ‘Oh, baby, don’t do this; please don’t do this to me…”
It was two in the morning before she could make a bed for herself on the sofa.
With the fall chilling rapidly into winter, she went back to New York alone.”
Note how Yates does not tell the readers what exactly went on during their fight. We know it went on for a while, that anger was involved, but what they said back and forth is not important, for we’re able to figure that out for ourselves. Also note how this technique breaks all the cookie-cutter MFA workshop 101 rules of “show don’t tell.” Yates proves that telling is just fine if the narrator is telling well. Also, what that narrator chooses to tell and does not choose to tell is in itself an act of showing. Yet it is likely that were this novel to cross the desk of some bubblehead literary agent, he or she would reject it because it does not play to the lowest common denominator and nor does it resemble the conventional crap they’d be interested in.
Easter Parade begins with the story of two sisters, Sarah and Emily. Their mother and father are divorced, and soon the father dies. The mother is a bit nutty, but funny, and Emily resents her sister’s added closeness to their father. The story becomes primarily Emily’s, and much of the book involves her dating a string of losers. But man, does Yates know how to craft losers well. Each one is an individual and there isn’t anything particularly special about any of them, yet you remember them. The book also deals with a number of deaths — notably the father’s, the mother’s and also Emily’s sister Sarah.
Yet Yates does not set the scenes up as grand moments, they’re actually quite average, as how they would be in real life. No grand sobbing moments, no melodrama, it just is. Throughout the book, Emily is trying to find someone to connect to, yet she still finds herself alone. And by the tale’s end, this fact hasn’t really changed.
Emily is also a flawed character, (as all Yates’ characters are) yet readers will sympathize with her. When she learns that Sarah’s husband is regularly beating her, for example, Emily is reluctant to allow Sarah to move in with her because she does not want to be inconvenienced. Emily is relieved when Sarah changes her mind and decides to stay with her husband, yet the guilt of this will live on in her, since Sarah eventually dies and suspicions about her husband having a hand in it begin to surface later on.
Yates also crafts a well developed dynamic between the two sisters, for when they are young, Sarah, as the older sister, takes on the more dominant role between them. She seems to have her act together, in other words. But as they age, their roles reverse, and Emily is actually the one with more self-awareness and independence. By the end of the novel, Sarah comes across almost as a helpless child. Watching the dynamic shift between them, subtly over pages, is part of the enjoyment.
After reading this, I will be ordering all of Yates’ novels. They (at least the two I’ve read) are complex, rich, realistic, and full of terrific dialogue. (Yates is also not afraid to allow his characters to repeat themselves and stumble over their words, as people do in real life).
Some have complained his books are “too depressing.” Well, that’s a lame excuse, and it’s also untrue. Some of his characters’ lives are, certainly. Unfortunately, that’s how many people are. But don’t be like them and you won’t be depressed. If you’re looking for realistic, insightful approaches into life, read Yates. Thankfully, he is available and won’t be going out of print ever again.Powered by Sidelines