I’d forgotten about Richard Yates, but his stark evocation of middle class striving manages to be both bleak and inspiring

Until Sam Mendes released his film version of Revolutionary Road, I’d forgotten about Richard Yates. I still haven’t seen it; where I live, it was only shown dubbed in Italian, and I never got around to ordering the DVD. But scanning the reviews led me to read the book, and so it was that I discovered him in a big way – by which I mean a start-buying-more-books-immediately way.

When Yates was first being published, I was busy with baby-boomer heroes such as Vonnegut, Kerouac, Hesse. Yates belonged to the world of academia and suburbia I’d left when I quit university and moved to New York; I wrote him off as another John Cheever. But while both writers charted the lives of the mid-20th-century US middle class, Cheever chronicled those in the upper realms while Yates focused on sad strivers who evolved into losers.

Joan Didion called The Easter Parade “Yates’s best novel”, and it’s my favourite, too. The Easter in question isn’t, as that holiday usually is, symbolic of renewal; instead, it stands for the last innocent days in the lives of two sisters. Sarah dresses up to take part in New York’s Easter Parade with her handsome fiancé and her younger sibling Emily watches, giddy with the promise life holds.

Since this is Richard Yates, the promise turns out to be empty and the girls’ dreams flutter and die, but between that Easter and the springtime decades later when the book ends, lies a heartbreaking story delivered in prose as exquisite as it is seemingly offhand. The author’s clear eye and stark language provoke not just admiration for his skills but empathy for his characters. He nails people with just a few words; strips them bare with a single phrase. Describing the girls’ snobbish, deluded mother, he cites her responding to a man’s “every minor witticism, and then she’d dissolve into peals of deep-throated laugher, pressing her middle finger coquettishly against her upper lip to conceal the fact that her gums were shrinking and her teeth going bad.”

Like almost every protagonist in a Yates novel, Emily yearns for love, success, escape. The last for Yates is often from an overbearing alcoholic artist-manqué of a mother, a mother much like his own. In The Easter Parade, he calls the mother Pookie; his own was Dookie. In A Special Providence, the hero’s ghastly, fantasy-riddled mother makes bad art and fails to sell real estate, as did the author’s own. Sarah marries a man who beats her; Yates’s sister did, too. Reading Blake Bailey’s biography of the author, A Tragic Honesty, one realises that almost every doomed character has sprung full-blown from Yates’s own life.

And, always, everybody drinks.

Alcohol runs through Yates’s work like the lucky breaks through his protagonists’ fingers. Whether trying to be a career woman in Manhattan like Emmy, planning bohemian lives in Europe like Frank and April in Revolutionary Road, or trying to be artistic free-thinkers like Lucy and Michael Davenport in Young Hearts Crying, Yates’s people are never far from their next drink. And that next drink is never far from disaster. Even as downbeat a person as Joyce Carol Oates considered Yates’s fictional milieu “a sad, gray, deathly world.” The fact that he manages to exhilarate and inspire in spite of this is his glory.

The Easter Parade, in which Emily decides to be an intellectual because “an intellectual might have a mother who showed her underpants when drunk, but … wouldn’t let it bother her,” was published in 1976, in the middle of Yates’s career. It shows an artist at the height of his talent. Author of seven novels and two short story collections, Richard Yates died at 66 in 1992, an emphysemic alcoholic who’d smoked heavily until the previous year, even though he’d long ago lost a lung to tuberculosis. In the end, he himself was the ultimate Yatesian character. His dreams – to be reviewed on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, to have one of his stories appear in The New Yorker – didn’t come true during his lifetime. But he never stopped striving.

And that’s what redeems Yates’s people. In the words of Theodore Roethke, poet of the damned and disillusioned, “O, but I seek and care!” The refusal to give up, the hope of a glorious future, gives all of them a sad nobility shared with their creator.

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