The critical consensus among the so-called literati is that Richard Yates’ best novel, by far, was his first book, Revolutionary Road; but this is pure bunkum, and an example of the worst sort of critical cribbing, wherein a meme about the quality of a work of art takes hold and then, despite obvious debunkings of it, remains entrenched. The result is that subsequent critics fail to form their own opinions, instead relying on information that is demonstrably wrong, but which will get them acceptance as a critic in the eyes of others.
A decade and a half after that book’s debut, in 1976, Yates wrote a significantly better book, The Easter Parade. No, that novel is not a masterpiece either — and has significant flaws, but it does represent a major improvement in terms of wordsmithing, maturity, and consistency in narrative, over the earlier book.
The later novel avoids the structural disaster of an opening that Revolutionary Road had, which plunged readers into the melodramatic maelstrom of a marriage between two lead characters they were given no time to empathize with. The Easter Parade opens, in retrospect, with, ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Ok, so it’s not a great opening, and given the Yatesian universe one might shrug their shoulders and say, ‘No shit?’ But, the rest of the opening pages neatly detail the lives of the two sisters- Sarah and Emily, so that by the time some ‘major events’ occur, we are in the same universe, if not shoes, of the Grimes girls.
Another flaw that Revolutionary Road had was its use of an omniscient narrator, which added to the telescoping effect of that book’s characterization. The reader never was allowed to occupy the shoes of those characters. While The Easter Parade also uses an omniscient narrator, the lack of melodramatic modifiers that inflict Revolutionary Road from its opening paragraph, as well as the brisk pacing and detailing of smaller moments in the lives of children, allows the reader to get into the characters’ shoes, even if they may never like the characters with whom they are walking.
Whereas Revolutionary Road was larded down in melodrama, The Easter Parade is much less weighted down. Yes, there is melodrama — about 25%, compared to the 75% of Revolutionary Road -- but the highs in the later book are also higher than the highs in the earlier one. The lone exception being that Revolutionary Road’s ending (after the predictable and soap operatic suicide of its lead female character) is better than The Easter Parade’s. Not that the later work’s end is bad — it’s quite good, but it is not as dramatic, daring, nor innovative as the earlier book’s; especially when compared to all the weak writing that preceded that earlier book’s end.
The book has quite a few moments, and then later recollections of those moments, which also pulls the reader into the main characters’ worlds, by recapitulating the fictive experiential feelings in the characters within the reader who, likewise, has the same recollections as the characters. Yates pushes this even further, by having the characters recall moments which seem to evoke recollections in the reader, even though they are being expressed for the first time. We see both girls over four plus decades, from early childhood to Sarah’s alcoholic death and Emily’s anomic embitterment. Both ends are not particularly new material, for Yates nor his contemporaries, but he handles most scenes reasonably well.
Sarah basically sells out for a life of Long Island housewifery with a man who is a bigot and wifebeater, then ends up in an insane asylum as an alcoholic, before that kills her before the age of 50. This is handled well since we only hear about this when Emily does (for the novel follows her life primarily), and the immanent melodrama of such a life is avoided.
Yates — in Revolutionary Road, this book, and his short fiction — is best when looking at the human condition from a distance, such as when he sketches, only a few times, Sarah’s inability to properly use more difficult words in their proper definitional context, or her misquotation of things said by famous people. He is a good limner of the ills of society and smaller groups and individuals. But only from afar, in broad strokes.
When he gets closeup, and needs a delicacy, he loses perspective and falls back on cheap melodrama. This ability to be better from afar than near seems consistent with the reality that Yates had a good intellect but was emotionally lacking, for the intimacy and realism needed in the ‘little moments’ that make novels great is not a major part of this work. As Sarah recedes into the background, marrying a scion of a family whose best days are behind them, Emily’s wannabe Bohemian life is foregrounded, and she is clearly, what in modern parlance most women would call, a skank.
The book details how she will fuck just about any guy for any reason — she loses her virginity to a soldier on leave, to any guy who buys her a drink, and any guy who is semi-nice to her. She marries an impotent wannabe college professor who has problems with his therapist; sleeps with a bisexual guy; a mediocre poet that she drops because he’s too ‘giving;’ several other guys that Yates grants barely a paragraph too, before her last beau — a business executive still hung up on the trophy wife that left him — leaves her to return to the trophy wife after several years with her.
When Sarah dies, Emily is basically alone. Her father, Walter, died years earlier — and there’s a nice scene where Sarah details her secret relationship with her dad, and her alcoholic mother Esther (called Pookie by all who know her) dies a year after her sister, after years of dementia that makes her believe she’s part of the Kennedy clan.
Emily is later fired from her long-time job in advertising by a female boss she loathes and who detests her, but who utters the novel’s most cogent lines. After Emily has a major screwup, she tells her boss that she’s worked too long at the company to be fired over it, that she’ll resign instead, as if to posit she has any dignity left. The boss then tells her, looking her eye to eye for the first time in all their years working together: ‘Oh, Emily, you are a child. Don’t you see I’m trying to do you a favor? If you resign you’ll draw nothing. If you let me fire you, you can draw Unemployment. Don’t you even know that? Were you born yesterday?’ This is a cogent observation, and that cogency, in the plainspoken moment, eliminates the grating of the cliché of ‘born yesterday,’ because that’s plain speech, but it defines all of Emily’s character up to that point in the book, and possibly till just before its end.
Spending nearly a year on unemployment, Emily finally heads to New Hampshire (self-invited) to visit her nephew, Peter — an Episcopal priest who’s always admired her as a ‘liberated woman,’ for what appears to be a new start. But, she cannot help herself, and starts accusing him of covering up her sister’s murder, by his father. She then apologizes, and Peter tells her she need not apologize, she just needs to relax. The book then ends in this manner:
‘Yes, I’m tired,’ she said. ‘And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost fifty years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.’
‘All right,’ he said quietly. ‘All right, Aunt Emmy. Now. Would you like to come on in and meet the family?’
It’s an exhalation to the book, and the character’s life, that is appropriate- especially considering the book is only 229 pages long, and filled with white space and large fonts. And the fact that the reader is not sure whether or not Emily really gets what the problem she has is, is a plus, for it helps the average reader to finally identify with her a bit more.
A major problem that infests the book, however, is its very subject matter. From the mother named Pookie’s insanity and alcoholism, to the alcoholism, abortions and affairs of Emily, to the alcoholism and domestic abuse of Sarah’s marriage, there is simply not much ‘reality’ in the book. Yes, it is soap opera reality, but most people and their families (despite what is seen on talk shows and so-called ‘reality television’) do not go through all these things; especially upper middle class folk in the middle of last century. Yates simply had no ability to get into ‘real folks;’ especially women. The working class was utterly alien to him, but he even had problems with ‘professionals’ and the bourgeoisie.
And it’s not so much that he even sketches these types of people badly, just that his world is practically devoid of this large mass of humanity; the mass that, indeed, makes up the bulk of the nation’s and world’s population, as well as Yates’ potential reading audience. In the whole of the book there are only a couple of scenes I recall of the existence of these sorts of people, and that’s a description of the patients at the insane asylum Sarah and Pookie end up in, and a brief moment when Emily is young, and alone in New York City, and gazing at the sights about her — including a Negro! Yates is under no obligation to overdescribe the world his characters live in — and that’s an ill too many bad novels today indulge. But, it’s easy to see that the delimited world that Yates sketches in his work reflects that he inhabited, and that the two were, in some way, self-reinforcing.
There, admittedly, are better moments with and between women in this book, than in Revolutionary Road, but at the end of the day, Emily Grimes is really just April Wheeler — the suicide from Revolutionary Road, had she never met her husband. Both are wannabe intellectuals and Bohemians, but neither has any real depth, and because of this, and Yates’ penchant for melodrama, the reader suspects that the narrator, omniscient though he or she may be, is not totally trustworthy. For example, we only hear the claims of Sarah’s husband Tony being brutal, we have no direct evidence for them. And, clearly there is a resentment Emily feels toward him and her sister, so it’s possible that she is misconstruing much of the narrative related to the reader, as is the narrator. After all, we read how Emily manipulates her older sister to her own benefit, not caring of the long term costs. And her last lover comments on Emily’s penchant for filling in the blanks of life, and not accepting that there are many unknowns in life- such as her sister’s death, is right on the mark.
Another problem, though, is how wildly hit and miss Yates is, in terms of the way he progresses the narrative. In having read two of his novels, back to back, and given they were written many years apart, it’s fair to state that Yates simply did not fundamentally understand dramatic structure and how it affects a story. In short, when he was good, it was likely the proverbial dart tossed, not a conscious act. This is borne out by the rollercoaster ride the book provides by having well written scenes follow poorly written ones, and vice-versa.
Still, one cannot read the later work without acknowledging that significant positive growth as a writer was made by Yates. A good example of this growth comes from numerous chronological transitions in the book. Many critics call this cinematic technique, but the truth is films borrowed it from the novel. Early on in the book, as example, is this gem of a flashforth, with the girls at their dad’s place of work, then at a restaurant with him:
‘Daddy, if you don’t like The Sun, why do you work there?’
His long face, which both girls considered handsome, looked tired. ‘Because I need a job, little rabbit,’ he said. ‘Jobs are getting hard to find. Oh, I suppose if I were very talented, I might move on, but I’m just- you know- I’m only a copy-desk man.’
It wasn’t much to take back to Tenafly, but at least they could still say he wrote headlines.
The girls then speak of their father to a boy at the playground. Plainspoken, concise, and a brilliant edit, to use film terminology.
Yet, then a few pages on, the rollercoaster plunge kicks in, and we get a scene of Emily with her muscular bisexual boyfriend, Lars Ericson, and we get a portrait of supposedly liberated Emily as a total and unrealistic male fantasy, showing that, despite his growth, Yates still had major issues sketching female characters realistically. After submitting to his sexual aura, despite his reticence (which deftly hints at his bisexuality, out of the blue Emily begs him, ‘You kindle my imagination, you feed my imagination. Oh, feed me. Feed me.’ Later, still, at the end of Part One of the book, we get a ridiculously bad scene between Emily and her husband Andrew where, after his repeated sexual failures, he blames it all on hating Emily and her body. It’s a terribly awkward and unrealistic scene, whose only partial saving grace is that the very first chapter in Part Two starts with the matter of fact assessment of her life as: ‘For a few years after she divorced Andrew Crawford….’
Then, as the rollercoaster starts its ascent, we get a truly excellent scene where the girls recall their father, after their mother’s first ‘episode’ of extreme drunkenness, requiring hospitalization. This is where Sarah reveals her secret ‘trysts’ with their father, hidden from Pookie’s gaze, for Sarah and he were closer than he was with Emily. It’s one of the rare instances of a realistic and well written scene between females in Yates’ work. It ends with the mention of their father only being ‘a copy-desk man.’ And this simple phrase gets both sisters to cry. Why? Because it is what is so puerilely called ‘truth’ in art, by MFA types; but what really is pure realism.
But, what happens next? Just as one thinks the novel has found its feet, and is dashing away from all melodrama, we soon get the….drum roll….‘revelation’ that Tony, Sarah’s husband, beats her, and that she is ok with that. The rollercoaster descends. Yet, that descent leads to one of the more deft moments in the book. When Emily finds out of this predicament, she wanly threatens to kill Tony, until she realizes that he has not been paying attention to her rants, and hands her a drink. What this moment reveals is a) Emily is, like her mother and sister, an alcoholic, and b) the claims against Tony, as an abuser, may not be true, for he seems so unconcerned with Emily’s actions and screaming that one can only conclude that he has put up with such screaming and accusations countless times before. Later moments where he likewise ignores such claims lend credence to this possibility.
Although he gets far smaller page time than either of the Grimes sisters, Tony Wilson is just as, if not more, effectively portrayed than either of them. The same goes for Emily’s business executive boyfriend, in Part Three — the one who ultimately leaves her for his returning trophy wife, Howard Dunninger, whose own selfishness mirrors that which Emily displayed to other men in her life. Also well sketched is how Emily finds out about the deaths of her sister’s in-laws; matter of factly, but with the natural unanswerable lingering questions.
In the modern PC parlance there is a saying accepted as a truism, that everyone has a story to tell. This is certainly true, logically, but it is also logical to add that not everyone’s story is worth telling because 99+% of stories are dull, trite, or just not that pertinent to anything deeper, nor to anyone else, in the cosmos. Plus, most people simply do not have the talent nor skill to tell that story well.
Richard Yates had the talent, and a good deal of skill, that was in ascent as this book was being written, but that was not always enough to make the tales he told worth reading. The Easter Parade is worth reading, even if it’s nowhere near great prose, because of the positives I have outlined. Yes, there are still some glaring negatives, and Yates seemed almost unable to fathom characters that did not choose self-destruction (in myriad forms) as a life’s pursuit. And, in a sense, the severe condensation of the novel’s narrative facts emphasizes this aspect of the characters. We do not get any of the Grimes women in happy moments. Yes, there are the usual scenes of wedding, birth, sex, etc., but nothing where we get to an existential joy, nor even mere acceptance of one’s life. Condensation helps veer the book toward melodrama, focusing on flaws rather than the totality of the lives described.
That does not necessarily have to be the case, though, and one need only look to Evan S. Connell’s novels Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge to see a similar condensation of narrative, but one which gives a plenum of the lives described: the low moments, the insightful ones, and the high points. They are both great novels, and unquestionably so. By contrast, The Easter Parade is only a good novel, with high and low points. It’s a big improvement over the far more well known Revolutionary Road, but too often it reads like a travelogue of a life, with any deeper insights and excavations left out.
Yes, there are some deeper moments, as I described, but they are the stumbled upon moments that any writer comes across if he or she writes enough. There was no guiding intellectual force that took this novel and deliberately placed it into that realm where great art simply is. Perhaps this is why, despite the sex change, Emily Grimes’ character is clearly Richard Yates, as he saw himself, and the cluelessness she portrays at book’s end is mirrored endlessly, like a funhouse of despair, backwards and forwards throughout this novel. Yates seems to have learnt that when reflection fails, try refraction. Not the worst lesson to learn and apply. And, sometimes, as in the case of this book, it’s just enough to work.