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.