Thursday, 2 January 2014

RICHARD YATES A Special Providence (1969)

Vintage Contemporaries, 2009

She stole softly into Bobby's room and sat beside his bed for a while, watching his sleeping face.  The awful events of the afternoon seemed far away now, far in the past.  Nothing had ever been that bad before, and nothing would ever be that bad again.  For years, whenever they were faced with any ordeal, she would gain strength from saying 'Remember the Caliche Road?' and if anything did turn out to be that bad, or worse –– if even 'Remember the Caliche Road?' should fail as a rallying cry –– she could fall back on Bobby's advice for enduring the intolerable:  'Let's pretend it isn't happening.'  She felt quiet and brave and well-armed for the future.


The Novel Alice Prentice and her son Robert, whom she insists on calling 'Bobby,' share little in life besides the ability to deceive themselves and fail –– in relationships (Alice is divorced from Robert's father, who reconciles with her only to die of a heart attack a few days later), as an artist (Alice is an unsuccessful sculptor whose view of herself as 'exceptional' blinds her to the fact that her ambition far outweighs her talent) and, in time, as a soldier (Robert serves as a private in an infantry company during World War Two only to encounter perpetual humiliation because he proves incapable of living up to Hollywood's image of what constitutes a 'war hero').  Mother and son are desperate and damaged people, clinging to the slender hope of stumbling into a better, more fulfilling life somewhere because the alternatives – self-realization and the damning admissions it would force them to make about themselves are simply too difficult and much too painful to contemplate.

Alice tries to do her best for her son, encouraging him when he feels depressed or discouraged as they lurch, inevitably, from one ridiculous, shame-inducing catastrophe to another.  While Robert tries to be kind to Alice, to admire her fortitude as she loses jobs and apartments and systematically alienates her friends by being too needy and taking unfair advantage of
their perpetually limited generosity, he nevertheless can't help but see her for who and what she really is –– a silly, capricious woman whose worst enemy is invariably, even masochistically, herself.  Alice's greatest fault, besides her stubborn and often misplaced pride, is her naïve belief that she's being watched over by 'a special providence' –– a yet-to-be-experienced positive force that will magically set things right for her, transforming her most self-indulgent fantasies into attainable and sustainable realities.

The crisis comes when Alice decides they should move to Texas to stay with her friends Eva and Owen Forbes.  Having taken Eva's kind but unthinkingly offered invitation to stay with them seriously, they install themselves in the Forbes' tiny house in Austin –– Alice in the spare room, Robert on the couch in Owen's study.  The combination of cramped quarters and an unexpected heatwave quickly get on everybody's nerves, causing Owen, a writer, to release his pent-up frustrations by getting drunk and sniping at Alice, whom he refuses to see as anything other than a vain, sponging, totally absurd fool.  One day Owen insults her precious Bobby, comparing him to a 'good-for-nothing woman.'  This is enough to tip the highly-strung Alice right over the edge.  She impulsively decides to leave and sets off out the door with Robert dutifully in tow, re-plunging them into exactly the kind of social and financial uncertainty they came to Texas specifically to escape.  

With nowhere to go and no predetermined destination in mind, mother and son find themselves wearily hobbling along a dusty road 'It's called caliche,' Robert tells his mother, 'Uncle Owen told me' –– without plan or purpose, the whole experience bitterly symbolic of the new, if not entirely unexpected, low point their lives have descended to.  Although they manage to find their way to a hotel after a few hours –– Alice spending thirty-five of their last seventy-five cents on hiring a taxi to drive them the last few miles – where they're finally able to rest and contact Robert's father so he can wire them some money, the day's events become a kind of touchstone in their lives, the point, they tell themselves, past which it will be impossible for either of them to sink any lower.  Years later, Robert even carries the memory of what happened to them in Texas that day into combat with him, measuring everything the Army does to him against what his mother did to him on that awful day when her stubborn, self-defeating unwillingness to face reality obliged him to trudge so agonizingly beside her along the Caliche Road.

Vintage Classics/Random House UK, 2008
Like Frank and April Wheeler in Yates' extraordinarily perceptive debut novel Revolutionary Road (1961), the Prentices are people inextricably caught between their staunchly defended illusions of themselves and the truth of what their lives have so obviously and miserably failed to become.  The desire to be seen as someone exceptional, to be treated like an artist by her friends and even by casual acquaintances cannot automatically make Alice these things any more than wanting to be seen as a 'hero' can make the similarly unexceptional Robert capable of acting heroically when he finds himself thrown into the thick of the fighting in Europe immediately after D-Day.  There's no 'special providence' guiding and protecting them, no kind fate waiting to come to their rescue even if Alice never loses her belief that such a fate awaits them and that, if they remain patient and hopeful, it must, in time, inevitably cause their luck to change.  While her unfounded optimism makes Alice an admirable figure in a cocky, 'never-say-die!' sort of way, it also makes her, in the end, someone her son realizes he must find a way to escape from if he's to stand any chance of not repeating and reliving her mistakes.  He chooses to stay in England at the end of the war instead of returning to New York, knowing that if he returns to America he'll be sucked back into Alice's fantasies, become her sole means of support while she continues to daydream about meeting the rich man who will adore her both as a woman and an artist and miraculously solve her longstanding financial problems.  She ends up living alone in a tiny Manhattan apartment, doing a menial job she hates to scrape together some sort of meager living for herself, her only consolations whiskey, God and her unshaken belief in her still unproven 'specialness.'

Nowhere is the unique genius of Richard Yates more evident than it is in a wisely written, understated novel like A Special Providence.  While he portrays the Prentices realistically –– the relationship between Robert and Alice is, in fact, closely modelled on his own relationship with his own difficult and similarly deluded mother –– he does so with a compassion and respect for human frailty that makes their story much more than a confrontingly honest examination of the relationship between a dysfunctional woman and her trapped but equally dysfunctional son.  In Alice's irrational struggles to succeed, to fit in and be accepted on her own terms even as she antagonizes, irritates and earns herself the unmitigated scorn of virtually everyone she meets, Yates reveals what it is to be lost, misunderstood and unwanted in a success-obsessed society and what a treacherously high price we're ultimately expected to pay for the right to cherish our illusions.  He never allows the reader to forget that, for all her faults, Robert loves his mother and wishes to rescue her from the endless cycle of pain and humiliation she inflicts on them in the name of pursuing what remains, at best, a deeply-flawed artistic vision.  We're all Robert and Alice Prentice in some sense, Yates warns us, fighting to protect our dreams, our pathetic little fantasies of how unique and special we like to think we are simply because we happen to be ourselves.  As he so movingly expresses it at one climactic point in the novel:  '…she was fifty-three years old and lonely and oppressed, why couldn't he let her have her illusions?  That was what her wounded, half-drunken eyes had seemed to be saying throughout the interrogation:  Why can't I have my illusions?

Why not indeed?  What else, Yates so poignantly and heartbreakingly asks us to consider, do most of us have to cling to when all is said and done?

The Writer:  Richard Yates once said that he was 'only interested in stories that are about the crushing of a human heart.'  His work is filled with portraits of damaged careworn people leading compromised lives in which the inescapable reality of failure –– personal, financial, marital, social –– gradually comes to dominate everything they say, do or ever hope to be.  And his own life was no less tumultuous than that of the people he depicted in his subtle, finely wrought fiction.  In most cases, his characters were thinly-disguised portraits of himself, his friends or members of his family, most notably his self-deceiving, mentally unstable alcoholic mother.

Richard Walden Yates was born in Yonkers, New York on 3 February 1926.  His father Vincent was a would-be concert singer (he was said to have possessed a fine tenor voice) who, through either lack of talent or lack of the necessary ambition, soon abandoned his dream and took a dull but steady job selling Mazda lamps for the General Electric CompanyYates' mother Ruth –– born Ruth Maurer but always known as 'Dookie' to her children and friends –– grew up in the small Ohio town of Greenville and married Vincent mostly to escape the constant criticism meted out to her by her insensitive and unsympathetic family. 

Like Vincent, Dookie also harbored unrealized artistic aspirations.  She yearned to be a sculptor and, after divorcing her 'tedious' husband in 1929, took her three year old son to Paris with her so she could spend a year studying under the renowned art teacher Paul Landowski.  (She left her other child, an eight year old daughter also named Ruth, in America to be cared for by her sister.)  The trip, paid for by the uncomplaining Vincent, was cut short by the Wall Street crash, forcing her to return to New York after just six months.  

After moving to a farmhouse in Connecticut, Dookie attempted to support herself and her children by selling her not very well-executed bronzes to wealthy private collectors.  Already an alcoholic –– as her ex-husband now was and as both her children would grow up to become – she was soon living far beyond her extremely limited means, regularly begging loans (which she was seldom able to repay) from relatives, friends and unsuspecting neighbors in order to survive.  This was to become a pattern repeated throughout Yates' childhood in places ranging from Greenwich Village to the genteel New York suburbs of Scarsdale and Cold Spring Harbor to Beechwood, an estate in the exclusive, well-heeled community of Scarborough-on-Hudson where, in the late 1930s, his mother unsuccessfully attempted to earn a living teaching bored housewives to sculpt.  Dookie's optimism, her monomaniacal longing for respectability and artistic validation, would become the recurring themes of her son's life and, in time, the curse of it as well.  

Relief of a sort arrived in 1941 when the mother of a friend helped Yates win a scholarship to Avon Old Farms School, a small prep school in Connecticut.  A weak, underdeveloped boy, Yates struggled to fit in at the school at first, although in time he adjusted, eventually becoming the editor of its newspaper before graduating, near the bottom of his class, in 1944.  Along with most of his classmates, he was immediately drafted into the US Army and sent to fight in France, where his unit, part of the 75th Division, helped to repel the final German offensive known as 'The Battle of the Bulge.'  He contracted pleurisy while in Europe, refusing to seek medical attention for the condition until his lungs became so weakened by the disease that he collapsed on the battlefield.  He suffered permanent lung damage as a result of this, a condition which in turn led to the chronic emphysema that would eventually kill him on 7 November 1992.

Yates returned to New York in 1946 and, unsure if he should apply for college or try to get started as a writer, spent several months living the life of a carefree semi-beatnik, reading Thomas Wolfe, Hemingway and TS Eliot and fantasizing about what he believed would be his glorious literary future.  This lasted until his sister Ruth insisted that he take the now-indigent Dookie off her hands.  Mother and son soon moved into an apartment together while Yates found a job writing copy for a food service trade journal called Food Field Reporter.  The job was easy but dull and the night classes he began attending at Columbia University were no substitute for what he would forever afterwards deride as his foolish decision not to attend college and earn himself some sort of professional degree.  

In 1947 Yates met a beautiful nineteen year old stenographer named Sheila Bryant at a party.  They married in June 1948, Yates working at a new copywriting job at the computer firm of Remington Rand during the day while attempting to write marketable short fiction by night.  Little got written and what did get written didn't sell.  Nor did his back-up plan to ghostwrite stories based on the experiences of a New York taxi driver (at the rate of $5 per story) turn out as expected.  These setbacks placed additional strain on an already strained marriage, causing arguments, separations and at least one half-hearted suicide attempt by Yates prior the birth of his and Sheila's first child, a daughter named Sharon, in March 1950.  Unfortunately, Yates was diagnosed with tuberculosis soon after his daughter's birth –– a legacy of the pleurisy he'd contracted during the war –– and spent much of the next year being treated for the disease in the Halloran Veterans Hospital on Staten Island.  It was while he was convalescing in the hospital, where he had plenty of time to read and give himself what he called 'the college education I never had,' that he began to gather the ideas for what would become his debut novel, Revolutionary Road.

After being discharged from Halloran, Yates took his $207-per-month disability pension and moved himself, Sheila and Sharon to France –– former stamping ground of his literary idol F Scott Fitzgerald – where he quickly re-dedicated himself to the task of producing what he hoped would be marketable short fiction.  One of his Paris stories, titled A Really Good Jazz Piano, eventually found its way to a savvy literary agent named Monica McCall who immediately recognized its young author's talent and offered to represent him as a client.  In the summer of 1952, fearful of having to pay high season tourist prices, Yates moved his family from sunny Cannes to grey damp London –– a city Sheila quickly came to loathe even though she had an aunt living there.  When a family crisis gave her an excuse to return to America she happily took advantage of it, taking baby Sharon with her.  Yates, who planned to follow his wife and daughter home as soon as he'd earned enough from his writing to pay for his ticket, used his newfound solitude to start his novel and complete a few more stories, including one titled Lament for a Tenor which McCall sold to Cosmopolitan for the impressive sum of $850.  He was sailing back to New York when he received a telegram from Sheila, informing him that the magazine had agreed to buy another of his stories and pay the same encouragingly high price for it. 

The upturn in Yates's literary fortunes led to a similar, if short-lived, upturn in his marriage.  With his stories now selling, he and Sheila were able to move to a bigger apartment and widen their previously limited circle of friends (some of whom were employed by the ever-resilient Dookie, whose own career was on the upswing following her appointment as Director of New York's City Center Gallery).  Yates supplemented his income by returning to Remington Rand on a freelance basis, writing promotional copy for a device known as the UNIVAC – the world's first electronic business computer –– while he used the free time the job gave him to write still more stories and continue working on his stalled novel.  (He would typically spend half of each month writing publicity pieces for Remington Rand, the other half working on the soon to be abandoned first version of Revolutionary Road.)  In December 1953 he met Seymour 'Sam' Lawrence, the new Managing Editor of The Atlantic Monthly Press, who encouraged him to rework the first version of Revolutionary Road to eliminate what he felt was its problematic resemblance to Sloan Wilson's 1955 era-defining bestseller The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.  

In what was to become typically ironic Yates fashion, 1954 proved to be one of his leanest years ever.  He sold only two stories during 1954, his other work being rejected by magazine editors on the grounds that it was 'too gloomy' and 'too misanthropic.'  1955 was similarly unsuccessful and by the time he and Sheila moved to a drafty cottage in the rural New York town of Mahopac in the summer of 1956 their marriage was once again in trouble –– trouble which the birth of a second daughter, whom Yates insisted on naming Monica after his agent, failed to eliminate.  Fearing that he'd never finish his novel or ever truly succeed as a writer, by 1957 Yates had moved from being a casual beer drinker to being a man who routinely consumed up to a fifth of bourbon a day.  His increased alcohol intake made him surly, sullen and difficult to live with, driving a further wedge between himself and Sheila which resulted in them parting for good in August 1959.

Atlantic-Little, Brown first US edition, 1961
Yates, alone for the first time in eleven years and drinking more heavily than ever, moved back to New York City and found work teaching creative writing at The New School for Social Research.  Although he never rated his abilities as a teacher very highly (he claimed that it was impossible for anybody to  teach anybody else how to write), teaching was to provide him with his most reliable source of income during his later, increasingly impoverished years.  It also enabled him to find a place amid the cigarette and alcohol-soaked his chaos his life soon became –– not even a new girlfriend and a brief but terrifying stay in the Violent Ward of New York's Bellevue Hospital could succeed in permanently drying him out –– to revise his novel, which was optioned by Seymour Lawrence on behalf of the new firm of Atlantic-Little, Brown and published on 1 March 1961.  

Revolutionary Road would go on to sell a respectable ten thousand copies, briefly placing its young author's name at the forefront of contemporary American fiction.  Tennessee Williams said of the novel:  'Here is more than fine writing; here is what, added to fine writing, makes a book come immediately, intensely, and brilliantly alive. If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don't know what it is.'  The playwright's sentiments were echoed by critic Dorothy Parker, who wrote:  'Mr. Yates's eyes and ears are gifts from heaven.  I think I know of no recent novel that has so impressed me, for the manners and mores of his people are, it seems to me, perfectly observed.'  The book was still being talked about when Dookie –– now seventy years old and living alone in a small stifling apartment above her daughter's garage –– suffered a debilitating stroke that same July.  (She lived for another seven years but never fully regained her faculties.  While Yates felt genuinely upset when he heard that she had died, and still experienced periodic feelings of guilt about her and their far from easy relationship for the remainder of his life, he allegedly chose not to attend her 1968 New York funeral.) 

In 1962 Little, Brown published Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, the first of what was to be two collections of short fiction Yates would publish during his career.  (The second collection, which appeared in 1991, was titled Liars in Love.)  As so often happens with writers whose first books are the object of universal praise, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness failed to replicate the success of its predecessor.  Pressed for money, Yates accepted a job in Hollywood, writing an unproduced screen adaptation of William Styron's 1951 novel Lie Down in Darkness for director John Frankenheimer.  Still poor, still alcoholic, and suffering from what would nowadays be diagnosed as bi-polar disorder, he reluctantly accepted a job as a speechwriter for Senator Robert Kennedy, brother of the recently assassinated US President, to help make ends meet.  When his resentment of the idea that he'd become nothing but a 'writer for hire' became too much to bear, he quit the job and accepted another teaching post at the newly-founded Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa.  Despite his many physical and emotional problems, Yates was generally considered to be an excellent (if sometimes brutally honest) teacher by his students who, at various times, included future novelists Andre Dubus and Gail Godwin.  Among his colleagues he counted the equally down-on-their-luck novelists Nelson Algren and Kurt Vonnegut and the similarly underrated Gina Berriault

Again, it would be teaching – at Iowa, at Wichita State University, at the University of Southern California and the University of Alabama – that would keep Yates financially and mentally afloat following the commercial failures of his next two novels, A Special Providence (1969) and Disturbing the Peace (1975).  Although his fourth novel The Easter Parade (1976) was well-received by critics and even regarded as a welcome return to form by some, it too failed to sell in sufficient quantities to make it possible for Yates to give up teaching – a job increasingly threatened by his drinking and his periodic stress-related breakdowns, several of which required him to be hospitalized for short periods or admitted to psychiatric institutions to undergo further courses of what was soon shown to be largely useless treatment.  Sadly, his second marriage to a young woman named Martha Speer, whom he'd met in Iowa in 1966 following his unhappy sojourn in Hollywood, also ended in divorce in 1975 after producing another daughter, named Gina after his friend Gina Berriault, in June 1972. 

Yates wrote and published three more novels between 1978 and 1986 A Good School, Young Hearts Crying and Cold Spring Harbor.  He was working on an eighth novel titled Uncertain Times, set in the Kennedy era, when he suddenly died in Alabama of complications from what was supposed to be a routine hernia operation.  The still-unpublished four hundred page manuscript of his final novel was discovered inside the freezer compartment of his refrigerator, the only place guaranteed to be fire-proof in his dingy, bottle strewn apartment.  Most of his work was out of print when he died and was only rediscovered thanks to a brilliantly perceptive article about it written by novelist Stewart O'Nan that appeared in the October 1999 issue of The Boston Review.  Titled The Lost World of Richard Yates: How The Great Writer of the Age of Anxiety Disappeared from Print, O'Nan's article suggested that Yates had been forgotten because he'd dared to tell his readers the truth about what life really amounts to for the majority of us.  Gina Berriault put it another way.  'Richard Yates,' she wrote, 'is among the very truest of American writers.  Each of his novels and each story unfalteringly traces our destinies and rescues us from the lost.  He sees eye-to-eye with every one of us.'      

The character of Alton Benes, Elaine Benes' angry novelist father in the 1990s sitcom Seinfeld, was loosely based on Yates.  Larry David, the show's co-creator, briefly dated Yates's daughter Monica and, like his TV alter-ego George Costanza, felt intimidated at the thought of meeting such a great, unflinchingly honest writer.  Yates is reported to have stormed out of the room shouting 'I'd like to kill that son of a bitch!' after watching the episode titled The Jacket which featured the first appearance of the Alton Benes character.

Methuen UK first edition, 2004
A biography by BLAKE BAILEY, titled A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates was published in the US by Picador in 2003.  The UK edition, published by Methuen, appeared the following year.  Both should still be obtainable via your local bookstore or favorite online retailer.

Please click HERE to read the long article* about RICHARD YATES by US novelist STEWART O'NAN which originally appeared in the October 1999 issue of The Boston Review.  (*Warning: this article mentions specific plot details which might spoil YATES's novels for those who haven't read them.)

UPDATE – March 2015

You used to be able to click HERE to visit Best of Everything: The Richard Yates Archive, which featured news, photographs, links and a full bibliography.  Unfortunately, the site has now been taken over by a US marketing firm named 'Richard Yates' which uses it to blog about marketing, advertising, public relations and other subjects of vital importance to the fabulously well-to-do and those who aspire to follow in their footsteps.
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