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.