Everyman edition of Richard Yates.

Reading between the lines.
Jan. 5 2009 7:05 AM

Richard Yates' Real Masterpiece

What Kate Winslet doesn't tell you about Yates and women.

(Continued from Page 1)

Nor does Emily really long to be liberated, and gradually it transpires that the differences between the sisters are mostly on the surface. Like the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road—like most of Yates' major characters—both Sarah and Emily are lost in a limbo between who they are and who they wish to be. In Emily's case, the most ruinous pretense by far is that of being essentially independent despite her "unfathomable dread of being alone" (a dread shared by her creator, who dissembled it with masculine bluster). Such a delusion sabotages her relationship with Howard Dunninger, a sturdy burgher who can offer, if not love, the sort of security Emily does, in fact, desperately need. Because of her bewildered self-doubt, though, she often hesitates to make an intimate gesture, lest the man think her too demanding or needy. "As she often told him—and she knew it might have been wiser not to tell him at all—she had never enjoyed herself so much with anyone." At length Dunninger casually leaves her, and Emily finds herself all but entirely alone in the world. Her sister (whom she failed to save) is dead; her old boyfriends have moved on or vanished; she's lost her job.

The last 15 pages of the novel are, perhaps, the bleakest account of middle-aged loneliness in modern American fiction—possibly the bleakest 15 pages, period. Emily sinks into a raffish, browned-out depression until she can hardly tell the difference between day and night. Invited to a party by her only friend (whom she dislikes), she ends up at the apartment of a bald lesbian named Trudy, who gives masturbation classes to lonely women: "Sort of the ultimate in radical feminism," a guest observes. "Who needs men?" Emily—who had desperately hoped to meet a man that night—instead finds herself inspecting a curious sculpture composed of "podlike aluminum shapes" that were cast, Trudy explains, from her students' vaginas. "There were no more parties," Yates writes, an elliptical leap that nicely summarizes his attitude toward radical feminism.

Advertisement

Emily's and Sarah's lifelong suffering may be traced to their chaotic childhood, when their parents divorced and they were left in the care of their feckless mother, Pookie, a woman who professes to identify with the wife in A Doll's House and longs for the freedom to cultivate "an elusive quality she called 'flair.' " Pookie's freedom, however, causes her children no end of grief and leaves both with a vague sense of self and an even vaguer sense of their relations with others. Yates knew the legacy all too well. His own mother was called Dookie and likewise fancied herself a free spirit and hoped to attain flair by becoming a sculptress with a lot of rich, interesting clients. It didn't work out, though Dookie persisted amid the constant harassment of creditors, who hounded the family from Manhattan to Westchester, N.Y., and beyond. (Once they fled as far as Austin, Texas.) For lack of any alternative, the children clung to their befuddled, alcoholic mother and one another.

Like the Grimes sisters, Ruth and Richard tried to mold their adult lives in opposition to this ordeal: Ruth sought stability in a ghastly marriage while Richard became a "stickler for accuracy"—the phrase he applies to Emily in her grim determination to stick to the facts—whose uncompromising art left him lonely, alcoholic, and poverty-stricken. Happily for Richard, he found a drop of comfort in using his mother as the foremost model for all the pretentious, deluded strivers in his work, and certainly there is something gleeful in the way he evokes the sheer griminess of Pookie Grimes: Her "uncertain lips" shine with bacon grease as she makes some asinine comment; her knees sag apart when she gets drunk, revealing "the crotch of her underpants." At last she collapses (as Dookie did) from a cerebral hemorrhage, voiding her bowels as a final objectification of her wayward nature.

The Grimes women's search for happiness is based on self-deception and thus ends in squalor; the same goes for the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road, and for any number of Yates-ian protagonists, male or female. To be sure, the author could be especially merciless toward his women—who would do better caring for their children, he liked to imply, than questing after flair—but he ultimately forgave such fallibility. Indeed, he identified with it. Once, when Yates was responding to questions about his work, a young woman commented on how awful the mother was in A Special Providence—"so careless and thoughtless and self-centered"—and asked Yates what he thought of her. "Oh, I don't know," he said quietly. "I guess I sort of love her."

Blake Bailey is the author of A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates and Cheever: A Life, which will be published in March.