Review of The Collected Stories Of Richard
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/16/05
During the time I was reading The Collected Stories Of Richard Yates I happened to come across a review of the book in a book of reviews by Joyce Carol Oates, which proved that she is as clueless about writing as she is about painting. Of course, given the three books she started and completed the week she wrote that essay it’s a wonder she actually even was able to recall his name. At least she spelled it Yates, not Yeats. Basically, Oates compared Yates’s stories to the paintings of Edward Hopper and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s stories to John Singer Sargent. These are good metaphors since Hoppers paintings are rich, mysterious, and reward the viewer upon each time it is seen- sort of like Yates’s best. Fitzgerald’s tales, however, a stiff, dull, and trite, sort of like Sargent’s portraits. So, what does Oates do? She asserts Fitzgerald and Sargent’s superiority to Yates and Hopper. Now, there is no serious art historian that would take Sargent over Hopper, but Oates’s gaffe illustrates not only what is wrong with modern fiction but also what is wrong with its criticism. Like Sargent’s paintings, Oates and readers and writers like her want tales void of depth and duplicity. They do not want to be challenged. They ‘like’ lazy art. Thankfully, Richard Yates did not. And, not content with a good metaphor being blown, she also tries to link Yates to the wooden grotesques of Flannery O’Connor. Yates is far superior to O’Connor but, that said, he is not a truly great writer- merely a quite good one, yet that’s better than most.
The writer he has most truck with, though, is J.D. Salinger. Like Salinger, Yates writes of the mid-20th Century New York, but does so with far more realism, and his tales are not hamstrung by the poseur sense of artifice that inflict Salinger’s tales. The book is divided into three parts. Part one are eleven tales from Eleven Kinds Of Loneliness, published in 1962, part two is seven tales from Liars In Love, from 1981, and part three has nine uncollected stories. The sections are all quite stark, as well. The Loneliness tales are hit and miss- with a few very good tales, and some mediocre ones, while the growth in Yates as a short story writer in the book from two decades later is stark. The tales are longer, less plot contrived, and are richer in depth and detail. The uncollected stories should, for the most part, have stayed uncollected. There is a reason writers or musicians don’t include everything they create in their ‘official’ works.
The book opens with a mind-numbingly bad Politically Correct introduction by Richard Russo called, ugh, Secret Hearts. Russo’s misunderstanding of what makes Yates a good writer is astounding. I suspect that part of his misunderstanding is Russo’s own stolidity, but also a part of the wholesale misreading of the Brokavian ‘Greatest Generation’ nonsense that’s been around the last decade and a half. Apparently, surviving the Great Depression and World War Two are bars from critical thinking for many, even though that generation did nothing to stop Jim Crow or the internment of Japanese-Americans. Yates’s work explodes that mythos far more potently than the stiff, delimited Salinger- showing it as just as capable of greed, sloth, bigotry, and self-destruction as any other. Ironically, though, even as Yates demystifies that mythos someone like Russo doesn’t get it, and deifies Yates uncritically, for the very same reasons.
Of the Loneliness tales the first one, Doctor Jack-O’-Lantern
is taut, and perfectly sums up adolescent male rage. Its end is superb. Here’s
a snippet of Yates at his best:
‘Ordinarily, the fact of someone’s coming from New York might have held a certain prestige, for to most of the children the city was an awesome, adult place that swallowed up their fathers every day, and which they themselves were permitted to visit only rarely, in their best clothes, as a treat. But anyone could see at a glance that Vincent Sabella had nothing whatever to do with skyscrapers. Even if you could ignore his tangled black hair and gray skin, his clothes would have given him away: absurdly new corduroys, absurdly old sneakers and a yellow sweatshirt, much too small, with the shredded remains of a Mickey Mouse design stamped on its chest. Clearly, he was from the part of New York that you had to pass through on the train to Grand Central- the part where people hung bedding over their windowsills and leaned out on it all day in a trance of boredom, and where you got vistas of straight, deep streets, one after another, all alike in the clutter of their sidewalks and all swarming with gray boys at play in some desperate kind of ball game.’
The next tale, The Best Of Everything, is almost as good, in its portrayal of a doomed married couple- he’s a clueless oaf, and she’s a spineless masochist. The next tale reveals what is Yates’s biggest weakness, extended banality- a tale that is too long for its intellectual impact. It is Jody Rolled The Bones, and hearkens back to Russo’s Introduction. The tale is a remembrance of a World War Two boot camp, and the replacement of a hard drill sergeant by a devil may care one. Russo says the tale is about the role of luck, although he blows what Yates is actually saying. Russo writes, ‘What good is luck, Yates seems to ask, if we are too stupid or blind to recognize it on the rare occasions it visits us?’, implying that the hard ass sergeant was the soldiers’ bit of luck. But, if you really read the story, and not just the words, Yates is really telling, not asking, the reader that luck really does not matter because things will be what they will be- hard ass approach or not. The very tale ends this way: ‘An attitude was all we needed anyway, all we had ever needed, and this one would sit more comfortably than Reece’s stern, demanding creed. It meant, I guess, that at the end of our training cycle the camp delivered up a bunch of shameless little wise guys to be scattered and absorbed into the vast disorder of the Army, but at least Reece never saw it happen, and he was the only one who might have cared.’
Right there is a sense of irony that goes wholly over Russo’s head. That clueless folk like Russo and Oates are feted in contemporary literature says far too much about its shortcomings. Yet, Yates, more than any other writer whose response criticism I’ve searched out, seems to have been saddled with bad critics. One critic, who actually thought well of Yates’s prose, actually wrote this sentence: ‘His prose is so easy and natural and transparent that it suggests a profound humility before life’s inscrutable sadness.’ What exactly does this mean, save the writer’s angling for a book blurb? Oh well. As for Yates’s tale, luck is definitely not an illusion, it’s in fact a guiding principle, as the story tells us most emphatically, and the sergeant that does not get this finds himself on the short end of the stick. The rest of the tales in that collection are hit and miss- not too good, nor too bad, but with glimmers of potential in each one.
The tales from Liars are much better. They are generally of the slice of life variety and work on no more than two levels, but the levels are usually rich with small details, and the tales’ ends are strong. The worst tale is still quite good. The two best tales, the titular Liars In Love and A Compassionate Leave, are both set in London. In the former a separated American writer finds comfort with a London Prostitute, and their interaction is quite believable. I was reminded of a story by John Updike, in a very similar vein, and how stiff, and devoid of insight into the characters and the reality of the situation that tale was. Not so with Yates, who ends his tale magnificently. The latter tale follows an American soldier on leave in London, and looking to get laid. He meets up with his sister and their congress (of the non-sexual kind) is touching and revelatory. The next tale, Regards At Home, is also very good, although it ends one paragraph too late.
The uncollected tales are not very good- most are moment-pieces, unpolished, and read like drafts-in-progress, rather than finished stories of the order of what Yates achieved in Liars In Love. They are like jam sessions not good enough for an official album. The lone exception is The Comptroller And The Wild Wind, an exemplary portrait of a dying male ego.
Overall, Yates is a very good writer, at his best, which is much better than many short stories from far bigger name writers like Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Faulkner, Salinger, and the like. Yet, he never quite breaches greatness in any of the stories. They lack an X Factor- be it a great end, a tale that works on multiple levels, or a sustained lyric impulse to his descriptions and metaphors. Some critics have cited him as an influence on Raymond Carver, and there is certainly a linkage in the tales, but Carver achieves greatness in quite a sizable number of his tales, because he is daring, and risky. Yates, for all his skill at portraying the yearning nobodies of life, is a safe and steady writer, yet his best lines and tales seep inward like the best of writing does. He has no abominable tales, like Carver does, but his best pales to Carver’s best and it is always the best of an artist that is remembered the longest. Too bad.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 7/05 Hackwriters website.]
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