January 15, 2007

Richard Yates: Disturbing the Peace

Posted in Yates Richard at 4:14 pm by John Self

It was with a strange and sad feeling that I realised, while reading Disturbing the Peace (1975), that this was the last time I would read a work of fiction by Richard Yates anew. Methuen have now reissued all his novels in the UK, and the cupboard is bare. And this novel, his third, has a weak reputation, and was the runt of Methuen’s litter. Was it worth it?

The answer is yes. Some of it contains Yates’s most vivid and immersive writing, not least the 40-page second chapter where the protagonist, John Wilder, spends a long (long) weekend in a psychiatric unit, the Bellevue, after being signed in by his best friend. With friends like that, you might think, but where we join the book it is clear that Wilder has for a long time been skirting the lip of a full nervous breakdown, largely fuelled by alcohol dependency. We can only presume that the Bellevue scene, like the utterly destructive alcoholism Wilder suffers, comes from Yates’s own experience, in which case it’s all the more remarkable that he even left us with this many complete works.

Disturbing the Peace also has a pithiness in much of the dialogue and narrative that some of his later work seems to lack, and lovely careful use of specific words, like the “probably” in the scene where Wilder renounces his lover and returns to his wife, and a paragraph of renewed marital love and happiness ends with the thought:

This was probably where he really belonged.

However. Just as the book is racing along at a tremendous lick – miserable alco-ad-man, desperate housewife, inscrutably sad kid, all the fun of the fair – there is a switch halfway through which seems to fall somewhere between hazardous and disastrous. It’s a reflexive and self-referential bit of narrative sleight of hand which seems quite out of keeping with Yates’s usual pinpoint realism, almost postmodern by his standards, and threatens to derail the whole thing. And the sudden changes which follow this (I kept skipping back going, How did we get here again?) suggest reams of unproductive prose hacked out by an editor – or Yates the morning after.

Gradually, though, this bizarre bit of fancy is assimilated into the story and begins to make more sense as the story goes on. In Yates’s biography, Blake Bailey suggests that the book is intended in part as a satire on modern values of sanity and insanity, but it’s hard to detect this among the usual – and brilliant – Yates miserablism. The ending is more satisfying than (and as bleak as) many of this others, giving a circular sense of completeness to the story.

Having read all of Yates’s novels now, I would provisionally rank them as listed below. It seems to me that much of his best work came toward the end of his life, which makes his early (ish: 66) death a greater loss yet. He had also begun producing books more swiftly as the years went on – fifteen years for his first three, ten years for the next four. His loss to literature is immeasurable, but seven kinds of loneliness are better than none.

1. Young Hearts Crying (1986)
2. Revolutionary Road (1961)
3. Cold Spring Harbor (1984)
4. The Easter Parade (1976)
5. Disturbing the Peace (1975)
6. A Good School (1979)
7. A Special Providence (1969)

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33 Comments »

  1. brad said,

    I’m fascinated to see you recommend Young Hearts Crying ahead of Revolutionary Road. I’d have to reread YHC again to see if I agree, but I will say that I don’t think YHC gets the credit it deserves. I really liked that one. Cold Spring Harbor also is great.

  2. John Self said,

    Well, let’s say I think it’s the equal of RR, Brad! Or worthy of as much attention, to be sure. No doubt the forthcoming movie of Revolutionary Road with the ‘dream team’ of Winslet and Dicaprio will help raise Yates’s profile, and about time too.

  3. Tony S. said,

    Having read all of Richard Yates’ novels except Young Hearts Crying (Which got bad reviews when it originally appeared, but your recommendation might cause me to read the book), I must weigh in on ranking the other six of his novels.
    1. Disturbing the Peace
    2. The Easter Parade
    3. Revolutionary Road
    4. A Good School
    5. Cold Spring Harbor
    6 A Special Providence

    I was so taken with the devastating alcoholic plight of “Disturbing the Peace” that I probably lost all literary judgment in favor of this novel. His book of short stories “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness” is also superb. Richard Yates is (was) a realism master, much preferable to Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, I think..

  4. steph06 said,

    Love Yates, and I just watched the trailer for the film adaptation of his best work, Revolutionary Road. Looks like it should be pretty faithful to the book, which is awesome. The movie opens on Dec. 26, and you can find the trailers here:

  5. John Self said,

    Thanks steph. Careful though, or people might confuse you with one of those PR folk who frequently email me asking me to cover the film of Revolutionary Road on this site. Your link hasn’t come through, though I’m sure the trailers will not be hard to find.

  6. Lee Monks said,

    I did find ‘Revolutionary Road’ and particularly ‘The Easter Parade’ to be genuinely fantastic. I randomly got hold of a copy of the former a few years back, stupidly imagining it was some great ‘find’ of mine. Talks were already afoot about the celluloid version, of course, as I soon discovered, but it’s rare that you find yourself with a book which is untrumpeted as far as you know that turns out to be as shockingly good as that was and is. The collected shorther fiction is even more impressive, but the question I really have is, as understandable as it is that such comparisons often arise, who really is the better writer? Yates, Ford Or Carver? I have my opinions, but I’d love to hear others. I re-read all of Carver’s short stories not too long ago and I spent yesterday having a bit of a Ford-trawl (having read ‘The Lay Of The Land’ a short while back). I think that Yates is the better of the three.

  7. I also think that Yates is the best of the three (though I haven’t read as much Yates as I would like). However, if you add John Cheever to the mix, then I’m not so sure Yates comes out on top. Since Yates is still fresh for me, he might come out on top in the end, but it’s hard to beat Cheever’s realism and his portrayal of the New York suburbs.

  8. KevinfromCanada said,

    I think you have to add Salinger into the mix — and then people will criticize my choice, saying that all of his short stories are actually linked and represent a novel in progress. A point that I would have to concede.

    Even more than novelists, I think short story writers and a reader’s evaluation of them depends on the reader’s mood when he/she does the reading. So maybe looking for a “best” is a futile exercise. All the names mentioned are good, some are better than others depending on what you want at the time.

  9. John Self said,

    Funny you should mention Salinger, Kevin: I was thinking of him again recently when Stewart wrote about The Catcher in the Rye, and even though I have no desire to revisit that book, I would like to go back to Salinger’s stories. Indeed I uncovered my copy of For Esmé, With Love and Squalor (US title: Nine Stories) just yesterday when going through some boxes of as-yet-unshelved books.

    But of course if we expand the contenders enough, then we might as well consider every American novelist of the 20th century – and where would that leave us? Lee’s initial trilogy of Ford, Carver and Yates is broad enough anyway, as I don’t think the three have very much in common (particularly if we consider the influence we now know Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, had on his famously pared-back prose), other than that they’re all realists.

    That too is where I would separate Cheever from them: read a novel like Bullet Park or Falconer, or a story like ‘The Swimmer’, and I think Cheever is very non-realist in many ways – which is why I like him so much. I commend to you William Rycroft’s review of Cheever’s Collected Stories, which makes me all the keener to read more myself.

  10. KevinfromCanada said,

    On the Salinger front, when I went back to him a few years ago I set all three volumes of short stories on the table and went through them all in a weekend. That certainly was not how I read them the first few times (I do like Salinger) but was a very worthwhile experience — various members and aspects of the Glass family come to life and reflect off each other in a most interesting way. And the three books do read more like a novel in progress that collections of short stories. As Stewart pointed out, there is evidence that Salinger kept on writing, just abandoned publishing. I am hoping more thoughts on the family Glass will appear eventually.

  11. Lee Monks said,

    Well, I read a Cheever story that was part of the Updike edited ‘Best American Short Stories of the Century’ collection, ‘The Country Husband’, and it was one of the best things in there. I need to map some Cheever terrain at some point as I knew then and, after the above comments, I definitely know now. It felt, when I read it, like a more generous Yates with a hint of Heller and Carver. I did wonder if it was a spike on the graph but I’m looking forward to getting hold of more.

    You do worry me, John, as I read ‘The Catcher In The Rye’ a few years back and loved it, but a few recent revisits have rendered books I thought of as indispensables as, well, not all that. And I now wonder, is the Salinger due to be retrospectively humbled? I thought it to be a seamless, hilarious triumph worthy of as much praise as one could muster when I eventually got round to reading it. I may brave it over the Christmas period and besmirch yet more rose-tinted perspectives…

  12. John Self said,

    Don’t be put off by my comments, Lee; the fact that I have no desire to revisit The Catcher in the Rye reflects merely the fact that I read it in my late teens (and that wasn’t yesterday) and can’t remember anything about it, so I don’t have strong positive associations. Or strong negative associations. Come to that, maybe that’s why I do need to reread it.

  13. I do think these authors have more in common than their realist tendencies. Generally they all deal with New England/New York life from the perspective of a deluded upper-middle class. In that regard, we can even throw in Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” though it moves away from being realistic (but I still think his style smacks of realism in that piece).

    I only wish Cheever, Carver, and Yates were still around to write about what it’s like here now. Underneath all of the corporate scandals and lawsuits and bankruptcies must be some fascinating private tales of greed, jealousy, corruption, and guilt, all dealing with people who set out to do better. These authors had a way of showing this while still making us relate to the character and his or her failings in a fundamental and frightening way. Add to that the neighborhoods where friends and acquaintances suddenly lost jobs and have had to move away – there’s been a ghost-like feeling out in the parking lot of my residence over the past months.

    While I know that there are authors writing about this today, I haven’t quite found one who from my perspective can state it as succinctly and poignantly as these three.

  14. Lee Monks said,

    Yes, Trevor; I often wonder what some of the departed would make of ‘now’, though two in particular. Kurt Vonnegut the Dubya disaster (fleetingly touched on in the miniscule memoir) and the corporate ‘boom'; Carver the nineties and the new Millenium. Though I rather think that the latter would have very little different to say about human nature, you do wonder if he might have something a bit special, and whether that elusive novel might be eked out. It seems ungrateful to want more from the man, but wondering about that spare, 200 page masterpiece that was always promised is a lingering thought. And does Updike still have it in him to want to look at the soon to be booted out administration in any kind of unceremonious scrutiny?

  15. KevinfromCanada said,

    One of the reasons that I like Richard Russo so much is that he does focus his books on this issue — albeit in upstate New York or New England industrial towns that have passed their peak. The decline of the Rust Belt may have come a generation before the decline of Wall Street, but there is still much in common.

  16. KevinfromCanada said,

    I know it is out of place here, John, but do you have an opinion on the chair for next year’s Booker? For those of us who don’t know him in person or by reputation, his name sure offers potential.

  17. I’d love to hear your perspective on him too, John.

  18. John Self said,

    James Naughtie (pronounced ‘Nuckty’), isn’t it? He’s primarily known as a political broadcaster in the UK, presenter of the agenda-setting radio current affairs show, Today on BBC Radio 4. Instinctively, he would seem a more reliable, and intellectually stronger, figure than Portillo, though I have no knowledge of his interests in fiction. He has written a couple of political non-fiction books, one of which (about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s relationship) I tried to read a few years ago and failed to finish. But his appointment offers some hope.

  19. Sam said,

    McEwan on Naughtie’s conversation with Updike at Hay a few years ago:

    “Sadly, in his on-stage conversation, James Naughtie clearly didn’t share my exalted view, and treated his guest less like a great writer, more like a hapless junior minister come before an early morning microphone to explain away his political gaffes – Vietnam and Iraq. Updike soldiered on bravely, and with considerable grace, pretending not to mind the hero of his tetralogy being called Harry Rabbit, and bearing on brave novelist’s shoulders the burden of his country’s sins.”

    McEwan has a novel out next year, doesn’t he?

    Naughtie is pro-Labour, which may have been a factor in his appointment (to balance out last year’s Tory choice). I don’t mind: the last time we had a Chair closely associated with the Labour Party was the year of Chris Smith, and they chose one of the best shortlists ever (with the eventual winner being about Thatcherite excess). Here’s hoping!

  20. John Self said,

    McEwan has a novel out next year, doesn’t he?

    Apparently not; in June of this year he said that his forthcoming ‘climate change’ novel “is not due to be published for at least two years.”

    Anyway, hurray for Naughtie, for treating Updike like the extremely variable writer he is, and not some impregnable Lit King.

    Agreed on the 2004 shortlist, Sam (I keep meaning to read Bitter Fruit to see if it stands up to the other four that I’ve read from it, including Gerard Woodward’s slightly overlooked – including by me until last year – I’ll Go to Bed at Noon). And Colm Tóibín, for me the strongest contender on that shortlist, has a new novel out next year: Brooklyn. An early tip for him to take the 2009 prize.

  21. Sam said,

    And I think Mitchell’s ‘Dejima’ novel is due out next year too. It’d be hilarious if Hollinghurst has a book out too and we end up with an almost repeat shortlist.

  22. KevinfromCanada said,

    An excellent update — thanks John and Sam.

  23. [...] the book, thought it a blinding wonder, and was encouraged to read all his other books – which I’d just finished doing when I began this blog. I re-read it in 2006, and found it somewhat diminished. I was inspired to [...]

  24. Hi,

    Well, I’m about half way through Disturbing the Peace, my first Yates novel and I must say I was a little disappointed to read, not here but elsewhere, that it was generally regarded as a poor novel. I think it’s really good, especially, as you say, Chapter Two in Bellevue, but the rest of it too. I was going to read Revolutionary Road but I like my imagination to be original and the only edition of that novel available has Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet on the front cover, meaning that I’ll associate them in my imagination when I start reading the story. So I went for something a little more anonymous.

    I plan to stick with Yates. I’ve heard that Easter Parade is good and when I find a copy of Revolutionary Road without di Caprio and Winslet on the front, I’ll read that.

    What I find rather tragic is that many people believe that Revolutionary Road is on a par, in terms of greatness, with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and yet it was virtually ignored at the time of its release, in the same year as Heller’s masterpiece. Apparently this is the case with a lot of Yates’ stuff, it was kind of off the radar and is only just being recognised. Sad if true.

  25. John Self said,

    Certainly if this is your first Yates, Matthew, there’s no reason why you would think it weak – even on an off-day, he’s still more vital than many writers out there. But I do wonder if, when you say you’re halfway through, you’ve yet reached the ‘switch’ in the book which I thought potentially disastrous…

    • I might well have just reached it; is it the bit with his new girlfriend and, what seems to me, a little odd: him and her making a film of his time in Bellevue. I’m at the bit when he’s back at her college with all the people involved in the making of the film. I’ll read some more today.

      What’s your view on Yates compared with, say, Updike, and, indeed, the Wilder character compared with Harry Angstrom? If I’m not mistaken, don’t they both have wives called Janice? Is Yates a ‘poor man’s Updike’?

      • What I find quite disconcerting is the futility of Wilder’s actions. I mean, the fact that his actions don’t seem to be going anywhere: the fling with the girl, the apartment he and Borg rent, the fact that he’s married with a kid but is messing around, it all seems so pointless and getting him nowhere, he’s not progressing. Likewise Harry Angstrom, though. His pointless, or seemingly pointless relationship with Ruth in Rabbit, Run. I haven’t read the sequels yet, but reading Disturbing the Peace, I have that urge to shake Wilder and tell him to pull himself together. Of course, he’s only, what, mid-30s, but he seems much older in his outlook.

  26. John Self said,

    Matthew, I wouldn’t consider Yates to be a poor man’s Updike at all. Frankly I find Updike wildly variable (other than Marry Me and a couple of the Rabbit books, I can’t think of anything of his that I’ve enjoyed very much). Yates’s palette was narrower, but I think he was more consistent. None of his books is out–and-out bad, whereas I think Updike has had his fair share of clunkers.

    I can’t remember enough about Disturbing the Peace to comment much on Wilder’s character, I’m afraid – it is over three years since I posted the review above! – though I don’t think I disliked him as much as I did Harry Angstrom. Then again, in the third and fourth volumes of the Rabbit series, I did warm to Harry more and more. Certainly though, with Rabbit, Run, I too had that urge to shake Harry. I don’t think Updike intended him as a sympathetic character, but he spent so long with him over the years that eventually he couldn’t help warming to him, and wanting the reader to as well.

    • Matthew Moggridge said,

      You’re right, I have less sympathy for Angstrom than I do Wilder. In fact, Wilder is an amazing creation by Yates as I feel as if I’m having trouble controlling him, he’s like active hosepipe thrashing around uncontrollably on the lawn. You mentioned in an earlier post how, at one point in the novel, Yates kind of loses it (I guess it was around the time at Marlowe and the movie, which I initially thought was a naff way to go, but, as you said, he pulls it back. I’ve just put it down at the bit where Pamela’s moved out of his Hollywood apt, he’s discharged himself from hospital and it’s all going a little crazy. I think this book has tremendous momentum from start to finish and now, like a lot of good novels, it’s kind of racing towards its conclusion like a downhill ride in a child’s go-kart. I love it and I can’t wait to read more. While I’m definitely not crazy, one thing I do find mildly disturbing about the book is that Wilder has certain character traits similar to my own, but then I find that, in most books, you can see elements of the character in yourself. Oh, you ought to know that I’m engaged in a slightly ridiculous ‘stunt’. I’ve resolved to read an author for every letter of the alphabet, the rule being I can’t read anybody I’ve read before. Yates is my letter Y, just Z to go but I’m trying to avoid reading Zimler’s Last Kabbalist in Lisbon. Any suggestions?

      • Matthew Moggridge said,

        Sorry about this, but if you want to read more about my A to Z novel challenge, go to http://tinyurl.com/yforc5l

      • John Self said,

        Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity? (I’ve reviewed lots of Zweig books here, but not that one.) Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We?

        I looked at your link Matthew; very interesting. I couldn’t leave a comment but I wondered what you made of Patrick McGrath’s Asylum? I’m a big fan of his, and if you check the Author List in the sidebar, you can see an interview I did with him a couple of years ago.

  27. I’ll check out Zweig and Zamyatin. Thanks, by the way, for reading my piece on reading authors A through to Z. Quite an interesting challenge. I liked McGrath’s Asylum and for that reason I steered well clear of the film, which, for some reason, I thought would not do it justice. Not as good a read as Disturbing the Peace but then again, a different sort of book so not really comparable. Yes, I liked it, although he’s one of those authors I wouldn’t necessarily rush to read again. There were, as I outlined in the piece, a lot of good stuff, bearing in mind a lot of the novels I read were chosen relatively randomly, although I did have that Rough Guide to Cult Fiction at hand. Willy Vlautin, however, I found on the shelves of Waterstone’s and I loved that book, so much so that I wrote to him via his website and told him; he’ll certainly be one author I go back to as will Michel Houelebecq and a few others I mentioned in the article.

    I finished Disturbing the Peace. What a book! If that was generally regarded as his worst book, I can’t wait to read his best stuff. I’ve been told that Easter Parade is good and, of course, Revolutionary Road, so as soon as I’ve finished Zweig or Zamyatin (sounds like a psychotic drug taken by John Wilder) I’ll be a free man and can read what I like.

    I’ll check out your author list too.

  28. Just to say that I read Stefan Zweig’s Journey into the Past, which was excellent and has inspired me to read more. I’m now reading Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates and I think I’ll probably carry on with Yates.


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