If you haven’t heard of Richard Yates, you soon will. In the biggest movie reunion since …. well, since Titanic … Leonardo de Caprio and Kate Winslet will again become star-crossed lovers in an Hollywood adaptation of Richard Yates’ 1961 modern classic Revolutionary Road. I cannot imagine anything further from the romantic schmaltz on the Titanic but I reckon it’s inspired casting.
I read Revolutionary Road about 18 months ago. Here’s what I noted at the time:
“There are optimists and there is Yates. I often share his despair. You only have to watch the news to realise that there ain’t much sapiens in the human species, and there certainly wasn’t much savvy in the cast list of this novel.
It was truly an absorbing read and the scenes so realistic with warts-and-all honesty that they came off the page. At times, though, it felt unnecessarily sordid. I freely admit I was shocked by the extended debate regarding the survival of the Wheeler child ….”
Revolutionary Road was sufficient to turn me into an aspiring Yates completist. And so 18 months later, I get round to reading my second Yates, actually his last novel, Cold Spring Harbor ….
Contained within its 197 pages is a much subtler encapsulation of the age of anxiety. A novel populated by the ordinary and the losers; those hopeful of avoiding the trap of mediocrity but failing miserably, trapped either by circumstance or their own shortsightedness; Charles Shephard, a middle-aged man who regrets eternally that he missed the action of WWI by three days but makes do with a mediocre army career during peace time ; a man who hopes that his son will achieve more. That son, Evan, a good looking young man discovering sex, marriage and fatherhood at 17, divorcing at 20 and remarrying again at 21, thus putting his dream of college at risk.
And there’s Gloria Drake – a depiction of Yates’ hated mother, Dookie: divorced, drunk, needy and an embarrassment to all who meet her. My, my doesn’t Yates’s pen just drip with poison:
Here she gave a little laughing shudder that was probably meant to be girlish and disarming, but all it did was call attention to how loose and ill-defined her lips were. When she laughed and shuddered that way, holding her shoulders high for emphasis, she looked like a shuddering clown.
On first acquaintance Charles Shephard states poignantly that “there’s never been anything funny about a woman dying for love”. It’s the only sympathetic statement for Gloria in the book. Further acquaintance reveals her alcoholism, her lack of tact, her intrusiveness, her manipulative manners and the emotional impact of all that on her son and daughter. The daughter is to me the most complex character in the novel: naive and painfully shy she, at least, attempts to treat people positively, to love them. It’s not going to work in her favour though – I fear for Rachel at the end, married to Evan, now transformed into a frightful boorish loser.
The plot is easily summarised. The characters start low and end up, man, woman and child, lower. But their behaviour is beautifully observed along the way with unflinching accuracy. They swim along in their alcohol-induced anasthesia, pretending to have a good time when they can, aware of the emptiness threatening to break the surface and engulf them at any moment, powerless or, at least, without the imagination to escape it.
Yates never loses control of his prose and that’s a significant achievement because at the time of writing, he was twice-divorced, broke, drunk and suffering from cigarette-induced emphysemia. Seems he had fallen into the very traps awaiting his characters – hence writing about what he knew in intimate detail: the full-scale horror of the maladorous Gloria (rotten tomatoes apparently) to the small detail of Phil’s filthy, threadbare school blazer. I was enthralled – I like my misery writ large. Must be the winter nights.