When a man is fired from his job in the story ‘A Glutton for Punishment’, he realises he has enjoyed the failures in his life. The character in this – like many of the other characters in Richard Yates’ Collected Stories – runs over a conversation in his head, with his wife, before the actual conversation takes place. Reading this book is having a conversation with failure – your own projected shortcomings (gone over in your head), the misfires of your past, and the failures of everybody around you (including those who fail to perceive said failures).
Yates is often called a ‘depressing’ writer, but most of these stories are as equally humorous as they are sad. ‘The Best of Everything’ is about a couple on the day before they wed. Revealed to the reader are their niggling doubts – all the things we know will become stalwart issues in their marriage, itches turning to reddened sores – such as the way the man says ‘terlet’ for toilet; the way he needs his mates; and the way he doesn’t notice her new negligee. It’s humorous because anyone who has been in any kind of romantic relationship will recognise the compromises, and will smile at their depiction. It’s sad for much the same reason – because these unfortunate perceptions ring true.
Another joy of these stories is Yates’ charming, unencumbered (very American) prose. Unlike something like The Catcher in the Rye, the language doesn’t feel dated, here, but drags you back a few decades while simultaneously making you realise how much is the same (in intimate human relationships). Even Yates’ later stories (none are actually dated here, which is a tad annoying) have this element of ‘politeness’ – a façade of ‘getting along’ when there is oh so much bubbling beneath the surface. Many of the characters do seem resolved to their fates, despite moments of piercing aloneness, such as the characters in the tuberculosis ward in ‘No Pain Whatsoever’; or Ken, in ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’ – who accepts the fact he is perpetually over-eager and physically awkward.
There are a couple of stories set in the TB ward. Yates himself spent time in one after the war. Other settings include domestic spaces, offices and in military training facilities and war zones (though combat is not explored). The stories are set mainly in the state of New York – the city and its affluent suburbs; London; and LA. The LA story ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’ is another one of my favourites, and all because of this:
‘By the time Jack had taken to drinking heavily and not writing much – not even doing much of the anonymous, badly paid hackwork that had provided his income for years, though he still managed to do enough of that to meet alimony payments – and he had begun to see himself, not without a certain literary satisfaction, as a tragic figure.
‘His two small daughters frequently came in from the country to spend weekends with him, always wearing fresh, bright clothes that were quick to wilt and get dirty in the damp and grime of his terrible home, and one day the younger girl announced in tears that she wouldn’t take showers there anymore because of the cockroaches in the shower stall. At last, after he’d swatted and flushed away every cockroach in sight, and after a lot of coaxing, she said she guessed it would be okay if she kept her eyes shut – and the thought of her standing blind in there behind the mildewed plastic curtain, hurrying, trying not to shift her feet near the treacherously swarming drain as she soaped and rinsed herself, made him weak with remorse.’
Some of the stories are from the point of view of children, such as ‘Doctor Jack-O-Lantern’, where a disadvantaged, lonely new kid, Vinny, both seeks and pushes away the care his teacher bestows on him. Her caring is so alien and difficult for him it causes him to act out. It’s incredibly moving (as most of them are) and so skillfully rendered – you’re right there in the microcosm of this classroom with its smells, strange intimacies and dangers.
In fact, one of Yates’ biggest strengths is the way he gets you in so close to the characters – so close you can hear their thoughts and plans and see their hearts ticking – yet simultaneously at a distance so that you may see how they are perceived in the greater scheme of things. Yates suggests both compassion and pity through this kind of writing – and not just for the characters on the page, but for the person sitting next to you, and even for your own stupid, small (and often joyous) existence.
I love this book. I have talked about it to everyone as I’ve been reading it. I found all my friends in it. I found myself, uncomfortably, romantically, sadly, truthfully, in it.
Sally says to Jack in ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’: ‘Why don’t you just come over here so we can sort of fall all over each other.’
It’s a book to sort of fall all over… again and again.
You might like to revisit the ‘Read and Seen’ review of Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, by myself and Mr Celluloid Tongue.