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[750] A Good School – Richard Yates


” Never say anything the doesn’t improve on silence. ” (Ch.4, p.90)

A Good School is a short emsemble novel, probably Yates’s more gentle work, charting the last days of a second-rate boarding school, Dorset Academy, in New England on the eves of the Second World War. The narration opens with a foreword in the first person by an anonymous man who reflects to that time and talks about his divorced parents. The father is a salesman for GE and the mother a frustrated sculptress. It’s the mother’s decision to send him to the school for the gentry.

The meandering prose revolves around happenings in the school, not the most prestigious and in the red, and all its quaint Cotswold architecture can’t disguise that fact from the boys. Later in the novel it dawns on the reader that the narrator of the foreword is the hapless William grove, at first a victim of the worst schoolboy humiliations. He is utterly self-conscious, but gradually across the novel, over time, learns to respect his own abilities. Winning an essay contest appoints him to the editorial staff of the school paper, and commands respects from the other boys.

Robert Discroll often assumed himself that Dorset Academy was a good school; even so, there was a nagging qualification: if only it were more like a real school . . . carry that sense of inauthenticity around with them. (Ch.2, p.31)

Indeed, underneath that veneer of an anglophile education is a savage packing order based on money, looks, and athletic skill. Tawdry secrets abound, like the brilliant mind suffering mental depression; the wife of a disabled teacher sleeping with the French instructor, the able athletic getting caught with a younger peer alone in his room.

The fate indiscriminate to everyone is the war, which is not only hungry for the boys but also marks the end of the school. Looming in the background is that inevitable draft into the army for which no education, let alone a prep school, should prepare the pupils. By the end of the novel, Grove comes to terms with his self-consciousness and matures. He reminds us all that is in the past is gone.

A Good School is bittersweet and elegiac. The prose is so simple and yet depicts people so average and readily identifiable. The loneliness and adolescent angst come through beautifully, and there’s that same sense of innocence tested. It’s an enjoyable read but lacking the depth of Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade.

178 pp. Picador. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[461] Young Hearts Crying – Richard Yates

” Matter of fact, the distinction between strong people and weak people always falls apart under scrutiny anyway, and everybody knows it, and that’s why it’s always been too sentimental an idea for good writer to trust. ” (Part II, Ch.4, 197)

On the heels of World War II, after being dismissed from the air force, Michael davenport enrolls in Harvard and aspires to write poetry. Dignity and reserve are qualities he has always prized more highly than any others. At first he and his new wife, whose family has money written all over them, enjoy their life together in the New York suburb. His wife’s fortune doesn’t bother him since he believes he could make something of himself on his own; but his is mindful of not living off her fortune for fear of bleeding away his ambition.

Being born with either [talent or money] can bring you more than most people allow themselves to dream of, but they both require an unfailing responsibility. If you ignore them, or neglect them, all the good of them slides away into idleness and waste. And the terrible thing is how easily idleness and waste can become a way of life. (Part II, Ch.1, 135)

This aptly sums up the life of Lucy and Michael Davenport. The novel, which spans over two decades between 1950 and 1970s, is told through the eyes of Michael and his wife, who later divorces him because of a lack of gravity in him. No doubt talented in writing, Michael is self-conscious of his stagnant career as a writer and leery of the commercial success of others.

He disdains commercial art but covets its monetary gain. He persists in this willful self-righteousness, shunning all the opportunities implicit in the worlds of his friends. He drinks too much and is deeply dependent on the women who keep growing weary of his self-indulgence. He is threatened by his fear of impotence. In short, he is weak, and he makes a cult of his weakness. As his marriage falls apart, he wallows in his inseparability of fear and madness. He gravitates to a succession of women but fear he cannot satisfy them.

The central problem we’ve discussed here, since the end of your marriage, is how best to take full advantage of your wealth and of the personal freedom it provides. (Part II, Ch.1, 138)

Lucy, after the divorce, dabbles in various forms of art practices, but she cannot quite make it. She isn’t weak, but is impelled to find her place in life, and she has the strength to make it on her own. She composes an autobiographical story about a young divorced woman who falls in love with a summer theater director who talks her into taking the most difficult role in an important play. Her endeavors in creativity bear the hope to justify her talent.

Ah. And what are you people born with? An endless capacity for lust and betrayal, I imagine, and a crafty little talent for inflicting senseless pain. Right? (Part II, Ch.3, 180)

In a pervasive tone of sadness, with prose so unadorned and unsentimental, Yates creates a vision, a relentless and unflinching scrutiny of a wasted life. Young Hearts Crying is about the desires and disasters of a tragic, hopeful couple, whose once bright future gives way to life of adultery and isolation. They are adrift in their miseries. In stead of a hope for their conversion from weakness to strength, Yates seems to ridicule the Davensports, who are perpetually wallowed in their circular ruts. The book feels tiresome, but it’s really their lives are just so tiresome to read, making me want to rage at them.

422 pp. Vintage Contemporaries Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[449] The Easter Parade – Richard Yates

” Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. ” (Part One, Ch. 1 p.3)

The Easter Parade follows the Grimes sisters for forty years. They are observed over the decades after their parents’ divorce in 1930, which, ruefully, seems to have dictated the unhappy course of their respective lives. Sarah is stable and stalwart, but often lacking insights, takes the usual course as many women did during post-war America, marries early and settles into parenthood. As Sarah leads an idyllic life, Emily undergoes an irrevocable change in college, where he reads English. She aspires to be independent and sophisticated, demands to be taken seriously and dissociates from the mediocre and commonplace.

There would be no more sex, she promised herself as she drove her fist repeatedly into the pillow upstairs. She would meet men, she would go out with them and laugh and dance and do all the other things you were supposed to do, but there would be no more sex until—well, until she was absolutely sure of what she was doing. (Part One, Ch.4  p.67)

What keeps the sisters bonded over the years as they weather through relationship storms is fond memory of their father, a copy-desk editor whom their vain mother divorced. Reflections on times with their modest but morosely affectionate father become a focal point in their life, some kind of a moment in time from which the sisters draw comfort and strength. Sarah becomes a victim of a physically abusive husband who beats her in the presence of their sons. But out of love she chooses to stay married. Emily drifts through a series of unsatisfactory relationships without any promise of consummation.

And that did it. They had been holding back tears all evening, all night, but that phrase was too much. Sarah started crying first and Emily got up from the floor to take her in her arms and comfort her, until it was clear that she couldn’t comfort anyone because she was crying too. With their mother lying in a coma twenty miles away, they clung together drunkenly and wept for the loss of their father. (Part Two, Ch.3 p.136)

The Easter Parade is quiet novel. Like almost every Yates story, this is on one level a tragedy, but the journey of his characters is illuminating. The quality and exquisiteness of his writing is noteworthy, owing to the fact that he keeps a distance from his characters. Yates has a knack for the effortlessness with which he encapsulates life, an he allows life to unravel at its own course. This quietness of style best illuminates time’s difference, since over half the sisters’ lives are packed into the thin volume. The book is one that will stay with readers and haunt them long after the last page is turned—because of the tragic choices and truly empty lives the sisters allow themselves. The Easter Parade is a devastating account of how dreams are more than unfulfilled: one finds herself utterly alone, her past wasted, her future hopeless, and her life consumed by regrets.

229 pp. Picador Paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[446] Disturbing the Peace – Richard Yates

” The thing is, I can’t be psychoanalyzed, doctor. I’ve tried it and I know. It just doesn’t take with me. Oh, maybe it’s my fault, but whether it’s my fault or not isn’t the point. The point is it simply doesn’t work. Can you understand that? ” (5:145)

Disturbing the Peace is a devastating story. The seed of a man’s destruction is laid from the beginning. The tragedy is not so much about his downward spiral to madness as the uncertain reason for what has gone wrong in his life that has so much promises in store. John Wilder is in his mid-thirties, a successful salesman with a place in the country, an adoring wife and a ten-year-old son. While in Chicago on a business trip, he has a nervous breakdown, becoming wholly irrational after he returns. His sulkiness and moodiness are fueled by compulsive drinking.

But I did go to Yale; that was the college they’d picked for me, and they’d been careful to send me the application forms the minute the war was over so I’d beat the big rush of GI Bill students. I still don’t understand how I got in and I was scared shitless of flunking out. (3:89)

The novel is about how a man is caught in the flow of history and somehow loses his sense of self. War has jolted out of all his religion. His parents carefully lay out the life for him to prepare him for taking over the chocolate business. Somewhere along the line he has lost himself. He may be troubled, but he never thinks himself neurotic or mentally ill. Paranoia and obsessive compulsion slowly take hold of him and eventually put him into a mental asylum. Ironically he believes his experiences there could save him from the chaos of his life.

He didn’t look at her face until he’d gotten through the hard part—he wanted a separation; he was going to California; he had an opportunity to become a producer; there was a girl—and when he did risk a glance at her he found she looked blank: he couldn’t tell if she was being ‘civilized’ about it or if she was stunned. (7:182)

Yates a keen on the irony of life. John Wilder wants to to find himself and creates some order in his life in the chaos. The orderly life that he risks of ruining does not give him satisfaction but pain. (Could this be true for some of us?) The entire novel is constructed on the irony that a man would destroy his life to build a life. He is more than unhappily married: he cannot handle the hope offered him, and thus descending into a depression so deep as to be irrevocable. He leaves his wife but he’s too tied to the past to be sold out for a girl who offers him hope. That the seed of self-destruction are there in the man from the start makes the book very painstaking to read. Yates never disappoints: the dialogue, speech cadences, observations, structure—his writing is a beautiful thing to observe even though the subject matter could be a nuisance.

253 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

[179] Revolutionary Road – Richard Yates

yates“Sort of. I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere, as far ahead of me as the seniors at Rye when I was in sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a best job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind…that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake…” [272]

It’s 1955 in suburban Connecticut; the country poised at the crossroad of radical change, but without drastic progress as it’s clutched by McCarthyism. That’s it is on the heels of World War II and that the grim prospect of another war was on the loom add to the uncertainty of the time. Frank and April Wheeler, both in their late twenties, appear to be the model couple: bright, talented, beautiful, with two young children and a starter home in the suburbs. They seem to have it all together. Like many of their contemporaries, they despise the mediocrity, stagnancy, and sentimentality that have shaped the nation’s psyche.

“It’s as if everybody’d made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The hell with reality.” [68]

Yet they have always lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner. But are they sure that they are not self-deceived themselves? Always being wary of the fact that she’s a mediocre graduate from a dramatic school, April’s botched performance at a play takes a technically worse turn on her marriage. Perhaps she gets married too young and is not cut to be a housewife. Frank’s job at the business machine company is dull, condemning him to a slow, painless death. April has conceived the move to France in order for Frank to find himself in life. The talk of relocating overseas with no employment lined up, the absent-mindedness during daytime, the withdrawal from consciousness in office, the relaxation of child discipline, and the dependence on alcoholic stimulation are all tell-tale signs that their certainty is crumbling and that they are the jaded ones. Ironically and sadly, only John Givings, the institutionalized son of local realtor Helen and her husband Howard, is able to see what’s simmering beneath their surface.

Revolutionary Road is written with such mordant unsentimental perceptions that elucidate emotions in precision—emotions of being stuck up and trapped. Yates takes the time to unfold the young couple’s lives, exploring our critical modern shortcomings in school, work, marriage, family, and community. But these are mere instruments that Yates employs to pave for the shocking revelation: the inability to love, which threaten to topple the whole intricate structure of just the marriage but their selves. They have instead turned to the will-o’-the-wisp in order to elude their problem. 355 pages. [Read/Skim/Toss]

Revolutionary Yates

yatesI perpetrated a principle of mine yesterday: watch a film before I finished reading the novel on which it is based. Not only that, by picking this book up at an impulse, I have participated in the hype! Revolutionary Road. To make up for the my rashness, I will defer the film review. Frank and April Wheelers abandon their life in the city in order to raise a family in the Connecticut suburb. As the Wheelers try to free themselves from their dull existence, their marriage slowly dissolves into an endless cycle of bitter arguments and jealous recriminations while they struggle to maintain a facade of domestic bliss. Only John Givings, the institutionalized son of local realtor Helen and her husband Howard, is able to see what’s simmering beneath their surface. Talk about a young married couple being stuck up and entrapped, in an era sandwiched between two wars and ravaged by McCarthyism.

Revolutionary Road is my first Richard Yates novel, which for sure will not be the last. Realism percolates his crisp narrative, as a camera pans a scene. Yates’ writings focus on the desperation and frailty of human character, even those who come with the best intentions. I am hoping to finish the book this weekend and post a full review.

“But that’s what I mean—that’s what was so wonderful. I would’ve treated him like an animal in the zoo or something, the way Helen does. Wasn’t it funny how much more sane he seemed once we got him away from her? And he’s sort of nice, isn’t he? And intelligent. I thought some of the things he said were sort of brilliant.” [203]

Isn’t it ironic?

“He certainly did seem to sort of approve of us, didn’t he? Wasn’t that nice about ‘male’ and ‘female’? And do you know something, Frank? He’s the first person who’s really seemed to know what we’re talking about.” [203]