The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
by Richard Yates
Anyone unfortunate enough to have come of age in the late eighties and early-to-mid-nineties was likely saddled with the moniker “generation x.” Lacking any salient characteristics to distinguish this group from the generations that came before it, this term became a catchall for aged baby boomers to heap scorn and contempt on their misbegotten offspring. It was employed so deftly as a label that no one really wondered if one trite label could sum up and condense the hopes, dreams, and struggles of a million souls in one category. However, this was not the first time in American history that a generation or group was consigned to a generic category. Of course, there was the lost generation of the twenties and thirties; the beatniks of the early-to-mid-fifties had their heyday; the sixties saw the advent and wane of hippies, yippies, and various other youth groups; and lastly, the seventies saw the rise of the me generation and yuppies. However, one generation has lately eclipsed the counter-culture movement of the late sixties in the public imagination and that is the generation that none other than Tom Brokaw has labeled as the “Greatest Generation.” Suffering the twin ravages of the Great Depression and World War II, this group, through recent films and books, has been set apart from all others as the generation that rescued America. A generation, barring our founding fathers, that has made the greatest and most enduring contribution to our society. Yet the niggling suspicion remains, if none of the other generations were so seamlessly united, what chance is there of this generation being more so? The Collected Stories of Richard Yates explodes this myth and illustrates the sagging truth that resides behind it.
Comprising stories originally written in the early fifties up until the late eighties, Yates explores the hollowness and anxiety that modern life offers. Himself a soldier in World War II, Yates treats postwar society neither with the reverence that Brokaw affords this greatest generation nor with the giddy, jazz-infused rebellion of the Beatniks (his closest, literary contemporaries) instead his stories document the travails and missteps of people barely holding on. Reading his stories, it is as if approaching a glorious historical structure and upon touching it, the whole rotten edifice crumbles under a slight and wilting touch.
Although the early stories in this collection are a bit awkward, as the collection progresses and Yates becomes more sure of his writing style, the prose becomes more surgical and precise.
One of the standout early pieces is a work entitled “A Glutton For Punishment.” In this short piece, Yates relates the story of Walter Henderson, a man who has perfected the art of losing. A man so in love with failure that from an early age, he has become enamored with tragedy and has modeled his life on noble, self-inflicted suffering. As Yates characterized him:
“All through adolescence he had specialized in it, gamely losing fights with stronger boys, playing football badly in the secret hope of being injured and carried dramatically off the field• College had offered a wider scope to his talent — there were exams to be flunked and elections to be lost — and later the Air Force made it possible for him to wash out, honorably as a flight cadet. And now, inevitably, it seemed, he was running true to form once more.” (59-60)
This story continues to recount Henderson as he is terminated from his job and attempts to make his way home and reveal the truth to his wife. As the story concludes, he reconciles himself to his fate: a perpetual loser.
As the collection progresses, Yates• skill as a storyteller continues to increase and he reveals a remarkable range in his writing. The startling inadequacies of his narrators become less pronounced and become more familiar. They gradually become more like people we know, more like ourselves. In fact, Yates’ genius resides in his plumbing the depth of his characters psychology to reveal the negative satori, that moment when they realize that their lives and hopes and dreams, the very foundation of their lives has been a deception. That is, the chasm between who they think they are and what in fact they have become becomes bridged and this startling awareness becomes the crux of their identity. Yet the harshest and most desperate criticism of Yates remains the sublimated and repressed hostility between a man and woman. Chained together but no longer in love, Yates reveals the sordid desperation and need that is often masked behind petty sentiment.
In several of his later stories, this theme is returned to again and again. For example, in the story “Saying Goodbye to Sally,” the brief romance between the principle characters of Jack and Sally serves as both a contrast and reinforcement to the harrowing encounters individuals will undergo to refrain from being alone. Centered on events that occur over a few weeks as Jack visits California to write a screenplay, Sally and Jack come together more out of necessity than true love. Their feelings remain forever tied to not the actual identity of the other person but what the person may signify. For Sally, possessing Jack serves as a ticket, an ambiguous code by which to enter the inner social circle of her roommate, but otherwise unequal benefactor Jill. While for Jack, Sally remains a momentary respite from the isolated work of a screenwriter as well as his own failed romances. As they each come better to understand each other, they realize that what binds them close together is not mutual affection but sheer necessity and fear. This is revealed particularly well in Yates’ characterization of a phone conversation between Jack and Sally as Jack gradually loses interest in the tediousness of their relationship.
“It occurred to Jack that if he held the phone well away from his head Sally’s voice would dwindle and flatten out and be lost in tinny gibberish, like the voice of an idiot midget. Disembodied, bereft of coherence and so of all envy and self-pity and self-righteousness as well, it would become a small but steady irritant serving no purpose but to chafe his nerves and prevent him from getting his day’s work done.” (352)
Yet as a morality tale, the relationship between Jack and Sally no matter how fragile and fraught with tension is in many ways to be preferred to the relationship of the two other characters of Jill and Cliff. While Sally and Jack remain desperate and cagey, they realize their pain and suffering is of their own design. Weak though they may be, they recognize that weakness in each other and in this recognition attempt to preserve some shred of dignity. Jill and Cliff, on the other hand, are wholly without merit. They are individuals who, possessing an abundance of material wealth remain lost to themselves and each other in the pursuit of one fleeting passion after another, a pursuit that is ultimately fruitless.
In many ways, Yates was both of his generation and never really part of it. That, while part of the greatest generation and witnessing the bloom of a large post-war economy, Yates saw the impoverishment and continued absence of definite meaning in life and sought to identify and resolve this conflict. This meant piercing the veil of complacency and illusion to touch and move the quivering heart within. Never preachy, and always sympathetic to his characters, Yates’ stories are as vital and relevant today as they when they were written. These stories serve as a wake-up call; they are a reminder. We are not to be like the character in “The Comptroller and the Wild Wind,” who ignores all the warning signals to him until his life goes careening out of control. In the heat of the moment when his wife announces that she is leaving him, she reveals what a nonentity he is. The years of living an ordered and measured life have robbed him not only of his dignity but his very identity.
“Once, backed against the refrigerator with her eyes flashing up and down him and her mouth curled for hissing, she said, “Oh, how can anyone hate you; you’re not hateful — you’re just a pompous, posturing, fussy little man!” And another time, when he had turned away• she came up behind him and said, very quietly, “I’ve never felt unfaithful to you, George, don’t you see? What was there to be unfaithful to?” (438).
Indeed, “what was there to be faithful to•” remains a haunting refrain throughout these stories and the legacy Yates left. Years of living according to someone else’s ideals inevitably lead you to becoming a zero, a nonentity, and a scab actor with a walk on part in the story of your own life. Something so hideous that not even the greatest generation would be able to overcome it.