Tag Archives: Richard Yates

… she would drink nothing for a week except a beer or a glass of wine after work each day.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates

Where to start with such a book? Perhaps with the opening paragraph which is sufficiently brilliant that it leaves anything I might say quite redundant:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce. That happened in 1930, when Sarah was nine years old and Emily five. Their mother, who encouraged both girls to call her ‘Pookie,’ took them out of New York to a rented house in Tenafly, New Jersey, where she thought the schools would be better and where she hoped to launch a career in suburban real estate. It didn’t work out – very few of her plans for independence ever did – and they left Tenafly after two years, but it was a memorable time for the girls.

easter-parade

The Easter Parade is a study in disappointment, and that first paragraph sets the stage beautifully. Leaving aside the power of that first sentence let’s look at some of the other elements for a moment: we know that ‘Pookie’ wants to be seen by her daughters more as friend than authority figure; the cutesy nickname suggests she might not be very practical which is immediately confirmed by that unsuccessful move to Tenafly and by that aside on her various plans; and then that final coda that “it was a memorable time for the girls” which somehow makes the whole thing infinitely sadder.

Easter tracks the Grimes sisters from childhood through to middle age. Sarah is the pretty one, popular and conventional. Emily lacks her sister’s curves and confidence but is both more independent and clearer-sighted. Early on they travel to the city to see their father. They think he’s an important journalist and are shocked when he explains that he’s “only a copy-desk man”. Sarah still boasts of him at school; Emily reminds her afterwards of the diminished reality.

Sarah saves herself through adolescence and marries a dashing and popular boy named Tony who has English parents and movie-star good looks. It’s what a good girl does and he seems a good catch, but we know from that opening sentence that the marriage won’t make her happy.

Emily meanwhile loses her virginity to a soldier on leave whom she never sees again, goes to college and then gets jobs in journalism and ultimately in advertising. Where Sarah chose marriage, family and domesticity Emily chooses independence and a career, but we still have that opening sentence reminding us that neither sister has a happy life.

The writing, as ever with Yates, is exquisite. I loved this description of part of Emily’s encounter with that soldier:

Somewhere above Forty-second street he kissed her. It wasn’t the first time she had been kissed – not even the first time she’d been kissed on top of a Fifth Avenue bus; one of the boys in high school had been that brave – but it was the first kiss of its kind, ever.

Despite that theme of disappointment, or perhaps because of it, there are no great tragedies here. Sarah would count losing her virginity to a random soldier as a disaster but Emily doesn’t suffer any for it. There are deaths, but from illness or age (perhaps sometimes exacerbated by too much to drink for too long, but natural all the same). Nobody is murdered; nobody dies in a car crash or rail collision; aliens don’t invade; the world doesn’t end; life carries on.

Years slip by sometimes in a sentence. Sarah and Emily drift apart. Each of them wants a little of what the other has perhaps because neither has a whole life. But then, who does? We all have to make choices.

Sarah dreams of doing some writing and her early efforts suggest talent, but her husband isn’t interested and she’s not part of that world. Nothing she writes ever gets finished and nobody really cares except her.

Emily meanwhile marries a man who comes to resent her for his impotence and some years later moves with an aging poet named Jack to a writer’s workshop in Iowa where he hopes to rediscover his early talent. Like Sarah, Emily tries putting her man ahead of herself and briefly abandons her career to support Jack’s but he too comes to resent her when his writer’s block fails to clear. Somehow Sarah can’t unlock the door to Emily’s creativity, nor Emily the door to Sarah’s domesticity.

There’s a sense that it all tracks back to their parents. To their father who considered himself a failure and who wrote headlines for a minor newspaper whose politics he disagreed with. To their mother with her fantasies of a grandeur and an elegance she could never realise. But perhaps that’s too easy, because none of the other characters seem any happier and they don’t all have divorced parents.

Early on in the novel Sarah and Tony go to watch the Easter Parade. They’re photographed there, young and happy and full of life and love. It’s paradise captured in a Kodak moment. Perhaps that’s the clue to this novel. Happiness is fleeting. Life can’t be frozen in a snapshot; kept inviolable against age and defeat.

Tony’s career never takes off. Sarah drinks too much and grows fat and dowdy. Emily is successful but lonely. Pookie dissolves into her own fantasies. Years after their breakup Emily sees a review of Jack’s new volume of poetry which he’s finally managed to write. It’s lacklustre and the reviewer quickly moves on to a newer poet.

If Tony and Sarah had died that day at the Easter Parade, if some chunk of masonry had fallen from a building flattening them both, then their lives would have been judged happy to that point. People would mourn their lost potential; their bright future. Instead they lived and the future turned out not to be so bright after all. It’s not the divorce that makes the Grimes’ sisters’ lives unhappy. It’s living.

I’ll end with one final quote from fairly early in the novel. Here Emily and Pookie are visiting Sarah and Tony who’re now set up in a home of their own. Sarah is married as she wanted, Emily’s at college as she wanted. Pookie can see her daughters doing well for themselves. They should all be happy and yet …

[Sarah] served a lunch that was almost as inadequate as one of Pookie’s meals; then the problem was that the conversations kept petering out. Sarah wanted to hear ‘everything’ about Barnard, but when Emily began to talk she saw her sister’s eyes glaze over in smiling boredom. Pookie said “isn’t this nice? Just the three of us together again?” But it wasn’t really nice very nice at all, and for most of the afternoon they sat around the sparsely furnished living room in attitudes of forced conviviality. Three women with nothing much to say to one another. Color illustrations of Magnum Navy fighter planes in action occupied one wall; on another was the framed Easter photograph of Sarah and Tony.

I suspect I’ve made this sound bleak and to be fair a novel about the disappointments of life can’t help but be a little bleak. However, the honesty and the beauty of the writing takes it above that. This is a sad novel, but not a depressing one. As it closes nobody is any the wiser, but life continues. It may not always be all we’d wish, but it’s the only game in town.

Other reviews

Jacqui over at Jacqui Wine’s Journal pushed me over the line into reading this (I’ve owned it for ages). Her review is here. Jacqui also linked to reviews by Kim at Reading Matters here and by guest reviewer Carly at Tomcatintheredroom here.

Carly’s review picks up two key themes that I wish I’d picked up above, but it felt like cheating to change my review to follow hers. They’re the theme of the pursuit of art as an unsuccessful route to meaning which crops up repeatedly here; and the devastating quality of small heartbreaks. Carly quotes an exchange that she calls “one of the most quietly devastating in any work of fiction” and I can’t disagree with her. Follow the link above to see it for yourself.

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it’s supposed to be a good school

A Good School, by Richard Yates

Richard Yates is an underappreciated writer, not forgotten, but not widely read either. The recent film of his classic , Revolutionary Road, may help change that, but I have my doubts.

Revolutionary Road, which I write about here, was Yates’ first novel and is still his best regarded. A good school, which I’ve just finished, is among his least regarded (though a lesser regarded Yates is still better than most writers are capable of).

A good school is dedicated to the memory of Yates’ father, and is thought to be largely autobiographical. It is the story of a second-rate (if that) prep school with beautiful buildings but money problems, the Second World War is looming and against that backdrop Yates explores the lives of the school’s staff and pupils and of one of those pupils in particular – William Groves.

William Groves is not one of the popular boys. He is not good at games, and adolescence is not being kind to him (it is to so few of us). He is subjected to sexual hazing games (which the text does not shy away from), looked down on by the teachers and the book is often at its best when discussing his painful attempts to make friends and fit in.

The novel opens with a first person perspective (rare for Yates), with an unnamed narrator looking back and remembering his father, a once-promising tenor who became and lived his life as “assistant regional sales manager for the Mazda Lamp Division (light bulbs).” There is a sadness to this opening, the narrator’s parents are divorced, there is a distance between father and son, but the father is doing his best and that includes paying for a prep school he can’t really afford but which the mother – persuaded by aspirational dreams and a salesman headmaster – is convinced is the right place for their child. The novel briefly returns to this first person voice at the close, a small reflection on the school and the narrator’s father.

The first person passages provide a viewpoint that is looking back, an authorial voice detached from the immediacy of the main part of the book. That main part, almost all the novel really, is written from a third person perspective but up close, right in the school with the teachers, the boys, all their rituals and dramas. The effect of the shifting narrative voice is to create a distance at the start and end, a perspective, but otherwise to immerse the reader deep within the world of the school. The adult can reflect on what happened, what if anything it meant. The boys don’t have that luxury, they are steeped in a world of direct and pressing experience, fevered immediacy, their only reflections are about how other boys will view them and whether they are fitting in.

Yates is particularly good at capturing the trials of adolescent life, the way for example communal showers become a battleground for asserting status, for glory or humiliation.

Lear had nothing to fear from the scrutiny of the shower room: he might not be as spectacular as Terry Flynn but he was all right, his prick was adequate, and he had powerful, admirably hairy legs. Another thing, he knew better than anyone how to snap a wet towel against the buttocks of other bathers.

A boy who has a large penis, or well developed body hair, he has nothing to fear. A boy though whose genitals aren’t really developed yet, whose pubic hair is arriving late, for him every shower is a trauma, an unavoidable ordeal that cannot be discussed with others even though they share it. In later life, status will be driven by considerations of job, money, possessions, but for now it is driven by issues of physical development, sporting prowess, rumoured success with girls. Popularity is a capricious thing, effortlessly achieved for some, unavailable despite all efforts for others.

The school, Dorset Academy, is near bursting with sexual tension. Masturbation is a fact of life, something one puts up with in roommates and which on occasion is done forcibly to a less-popular boy as a means of humiliating him. Erections are yet another source of embarrassment, rearing up at the most inopportune times and prompted by mere conversation with a girl. The boys fixate on the one girl their age they ever see, Edith Stone, a teacher’s daughter and student at a nearby (but quite inaccessible) girls’ school, they dream of her though few of them ever actually speak to her. Sex is an issue for the teachers too, with the crippled chemistry teacher’s wife sleeping with the French Master. The atmosphere is thick with lust, unsatisfied or illicit.

A good school has a wider focus than did Revolutionary Road. Here, Yates explores a whole school, the lives of several of the teachers and pupils. While William Groves is the focus, his experience the core of the narrative, the novel in the main opts for breadth of coverage rather than depth. That said, Yates still has a precise and unsparing eye which captures characters’ vanities and disappointments in a line. Here he describes a teacher’s wife after a quarrel:

When he’d gone she walked the floor for a long time with one hand at her forehead. She might have cried, except that it almost never occurred to her to cry when she was alone.

What impressed me with A good school was the clarity with which Yates captured those years. My own schooling was as far from Dorset Academy as can be imagined, a trendy inner city comprehensive in London rather than a failing prep school in pre-war Connecticut, but for all that I recognised almost everything. There is a universality of experience here, our schools may differ, but adolescence remains much the same. At one point the novel follows Edith Stone, the school’s lone girl, and her life is not that different to the boys – confused, pulsing with unsatisfied desire, obsessed with her developing body (is her chin alright? She checks in the mirror, repeatedly). She is as they are. To them, she is a mysterious and desirable creature, woman with a capital W, but in fact she is just another child struggling with a changing body and a crush of emotions she barely understands.

The opportunities for hurt, the uncertainty of those years, the sheer physical need for friendship coupled with the fear of showing weakness in front of your peers, I recognised it all and I thought it probably the best depiction of what school is like that I’ve read. We didn’t board at my school, but we had school trips where we had to choose roommates for the cheap hotels booked for us, this is how that went and I’m glad it was just for a fortnight and not for a year:

There was a rule at Dorset that you had to room alone during your first year, having a roommate was a privilege reserved for “old” boys. This made for a good deal of emotional tension every May, when the double-room assignments were given out.
“Hey,” one boy would shyly say to another. “Want to get a room together next year?”
“Well, the thing is I’ve already promised somebody else.”
“Oh.”
For a week the quadrangle pulsed with awkward little conversations like that; it was a time of subtle pursuit and hurt feelings and last-minute settlings for second best.

Equally, the following passage reminded me so strongly of when I was a teenager it bordered on painful to read:

Grove spent most of that vacation teaching himself to smoke. He would soon turn seventeen, and he didn’t want to be the fool of the senior club.
First he had to learn the physical side of it – how to inhale without coughing; how to will his senses to accept drugged dizziness as pleasure rather than incipient nausea. Then came the subtler lessons in aesthetics, aided by the use of the bathroom mirror: learning to handle a cigarette casually, even gesturing with it while talking, as if scarcely aware of having it in his fingers; deciding which part of his lips formed the spot where a cigarette might hang most attractively – front and profile – and how best to squint against the smoke in both of those views. The remarkable thing about cigarettes, he discovered, was that they added years to the face that always looked nakedly younger than his age.
By the time of his seventeenth birthday he was ready. His smoking passed the critical scrutiny of his peers – nobody laughed – and so he was initiated.

I didn’t teach myself to smoke. I did, however, have to teach myself how to drink beer. I’d go down the pub when my friends were otherwise occupied, buy a half-pint and force myself to drink it until I got used to the taste. I trained myself to enjoy having a drink, so that I could fit in, so I wouldn’t look childish. To me now, as an adult, that seems bizarre. At the time, it seemed vital.

As the novel continues, Grove starts to find his own place within the school, his own niche. The school’s finances continue to deteriorate, the tensions between the teachers to worsen. For all that, the question remains as to whether it is after all in some sense a good school. Boys who treat each other with appalling cruelty in the early years sometimes find an accommodation, to an extent they simply grow up and become less savage to each other, Groves, though never an academic success, becomes involved with the school newspaper so paving the way for a later career as a writer. Dorset Academy is a lousy school, run by a shyster of a headmaster and with a distinctly dubious reputation and teachers who try to pretend to themselves that it’s a better place than it is, but it is the only school Groves has and lousy as it may be it doesn’t do that badly for him, for all the misery along the way.

A good school is a short novel, under 200 pages, and it’s not at the level of Revolutionary Road. For all that though, it’s well written and it captures the brutality and promise of those years with exceptional skill. It’s a sad novel in many ways, and not always wholly successful (the boys start to get called up as the US enters the war, which is convincing and powerful, but I wasn’t persuaded the novel really needed those elements), but its depiction of school and adolescence is powerful and true and it reminds me how thankful I am to have left those years behind.

A good school

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