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)