How much Richard Yates can one bear?

Richard Yates: Young Hearts Crying

youngheartsIt’s no secret that I am fond of the way in which Richard Yates cynically pierces the bubble of the American Dream, and thereby makes us all cringe as we recognise our own undesirable tendencies to envy others, to keep up with the Joneses, to be self-absorbed, to be unable to live up to our ideals, to be unrealistic and so on. Self-flagellation is alive and kicking in his novels and the rather sentimentally entitled ‘Young Hearts Crying’ is no exception. It is the story of a mismatched couple, as is so often the case with Yates, but interestingly enough, it does not end with the dissolution of a marriage and tragedy (as Revolutionary Road does). In fact, it might even be said to have a mildly upbeat ending. At least there is some hope that life goes on and that the characters have learnt a bit of a lesson.

Michael Davenport is a young war veteran determined to succeed as a writer without recourse to his wife’s trust fund. He is confident he will be able to support his family through his job without compromising his art. His motto seems to be:

Once I get the hang of it, I’ll be doing [this job] with my left hand.

His wife, Lucy, is initially adoring and supportive, but as Michael gets stuck in one dead-end job after another, and never gets around to writing, she becomes increasingly disenchanted. As in all Yates books, a lot of drinking is involved. It doesn’t help that the young couple keep comparing themselves with the Nelsons, who seem to be able to effortlessly combine artistic merit with commercial and social success. The grass is always greener on the other side and Michael believes that the mark of a true professional is to make difficult things look easy. However, he personally finds writing very difficult, so he becomes bitter and twisted in the process.

After the marriage breaks down, both of them drift. Lucy attempts to find herself through acting, writing and art, each time grasping at the straw of an artistic mentor. Meanwhile, Michael has a nervous breakdown and searches for ever-younger female company. Each of them reaches some kind of conclusion, although I would hesitate to call it ‘wisdom’, more like a ‘compromised way of life’.  But the journey there is marked by the fierce humour and cringeworthy anecdotes, as well as the quietly controlled style that makes Yates such a master of discontent.

Despair would have to wait at least a few more hours, because this was a party night at the Nelsons’.

DorothyParkerI remember a friend advising me not to read Revolutionary Road (which was my first book by Yates) unless my own marriage was happy and I felt fulfilled. I have to admit he is so ruthless in his dissection of human flaws and so pessimistic in outlook that he does not make for the most comforting of reads. I can certainly not bear to read more than one of his books at a time (and then move on to lighter things). However, unlike Jean Rhys, he is not unremittingly tragic (perhaps because his characters are so pitiable but not likeable at all). There is a lot of satire and comedy in his work, which occasionally reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s (woefully underrated) tragicomic short stories.

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32 thoughts on “How much Richard Yates can one bear?”

  1. My one attempt at reading Yates, quite a while ago, was a failure so my response would probably be “none”! But I know he’s highly regarded so maybe I should try again!

    1. He can be a bit like marmite. And, much like Patrick Modiano, I think he has a bit of a theme going through all of his books (or do I mean a one-track mind?), so if you don’t happen to like the theme very much, you are unlikely to find anything of his that you will enjoy.

      1. The danger is that the one-track mind can be off-putting. I’ve read one Modiano, which I liked, but when I started a second it seemed pretty much the same and I didn’t feel a huge urge to carry on!

  2. Excellent review, Marina Sofia. Yes, writers like that can make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin – or at least your own life. So I can see why Yates’ work is a ‘one dose at a time’ sort of thing for you. I’m glad you were drawn into this story, and I think your comparison to Parker is interesting.

  3. I have ‘The Easter Parade’ as a book ‘to read ASAP’. I haven’t found his books to be overly bleak but I’ve only read a couple so far. I’m looking forward to TEP though.

  4. I’ve only read Revolutionary Road, but loved it nearly as much as Gatsby. So Santa kindly brought me The Easter Parade this year – looking forward to it! Yes, certainly Rev Road wasn’t the most cheery book in the world, but his writing is so beautiful, as well as being utterly penetrating, that it was still pure pleasure to read. I agree I couldn’t read him one after the other though – they need time to settle…

    1. That’s exactly it – a bit of time to digest. The writing is very clever, quite subtle, but in this book there were some instances of it getting repetitive, I thought.

  5. O I love a bit of Yates ….read RR , Easter Parade and A Special Providence but not this one . I shall look out for it now . I have always found Jean Rhys quite funny btw ….albeit in a tragic kind of a way !

  6. I’ve only read ‘Revolutionary Road’ and while I did appreciate it, it didn’t send me off searching for anything else by him. I’m interested in what you say about it puncturing the idea of the American Dream. So many novels seem to set out to do precisely that. Are there any that support the concept?

    1. Partly or mostly supporting it: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff (OK< not strictly speaking a novel), Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, most of Willa Cather, Louisa May Alcott, Richard Ford, Horatio Alger, E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime…

  7. Interesting to see your comments on the ending as that does sound rather different to Rev Road…although, like April in RR, the female character has an artistic bent. I think this will be my next Yates novel, but I’m keen to get to his short stories (especially seeing as they’ve been waiting patiently on my shelves for a few years). Looking forward to both.

  8. This sounds so good as well. I picked up my third Cold Spring Harbor but somehow didn’t get into it, so I put it aside for the time being. Maybe I’m weird but I could read one after the other.

      1. I don’t know about that but I certainly don’t identify with his characters. And only empathize to a minor extent as I find they really do most things to themselves. It’s not outside forces most of the time.
        Besides – the heavy drinking is something that doesn’t trigger compassion in me.
        And I do find that he makes fun of them, which I found amusing. And – last but not least – the downfall of many of his female charcaters is the era in which they live. Fortunately thinks are better for contemporary women. Just think of April Wheeler. That wouldn’t happen nowadays.

      2. Yes, he does make fun of them – and thus enables us to laugh at them. I certainly cannot sympathise with his characters – it’s more like watching a train crash…

  9. I haven’t read Yates yet – got Revolutionary Road on the TBR – with your great review & assessment of his style I feel strangely drawn! Especially like the sound of Young Hearts Crying… the quip regarding the time for despair & the Nelson’s party? Ha! Fab!

    I must explore Dorothy Parker too… great review Marina😊

    1. Oh, yes, please discover Dorothy Parker ASAP – she is hilarious and yet heartbreaking at the same time, especially her short stories! And there are lots of witty observations like that in Richard Yates, I think you would like him.

      1. Just spotted there’s a collection of Dorothy Parker in Penguin Modern Classics range: ‘she managed to express her real feelings in stanzas that snap and glitter like a chanel handbag’ … 💥🔨SOLD!

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