Richard Yates' Real Masterpiece
What Kate Winslet doesn't tell you about Yates and women.
The film adaptation of Richard Yates' first and most famous novel, Revolutionary Road, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, is a remarkably faithful treatment of the book, which—in case you've missed the buzz—is about an attractive young couple who are discontented with 1950s suburban life and come to a bad end. The novel was published in 1961, and almost 50 years later many seem tempted to read Betty Friedan-style discontentment into it, viewing Winslet's character, April Wheeler, as a kind of proto-feminist. It is she, after all, who has the idea to chuck everything and move to Paris while her husband Frank loses his nerve and decides that the "hopeless emptiness" of Eisenhower America isn't so bad.
Yates would have groaned at such an interpretation. Outside the niceties of art, he expressed an almost pathological hatred for what he was apt to call "feminist horseshit," and, indeed, his work has a reputation for its misogynistic edge. Not that his men seem very admirable themselves; behind all the pseudo-intellectual posturing, Frank Wheeler is a cringing mediocrity and (on some level) knows it. He is, in short, a paradigm of the ineffectual Yates-ian male. It is telling, though, that when April's own dreams of being an actress—one of the "golden people," as she puts it—are dashed, she reverts to a misguided faith in her husband, who, she hopes, will "find himself" while she supports him with secretarial work in Paris.
The fact is, Yates was quite capable of exploring the hazards of self-deception from the perspective of either gender. "You know so much about women," Gloria Vanderbilt gushed in a fan letter to Yates—this with particular reference to his fourth novel, The Easter Parade (1976), now available in an omnibus volume from the Everyman Library that also includes Revolutionary Road and the story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. Apart from being (I submit) a masterpiece in its own right, The Easter Parade proves that both feminism and misogyny are beside the point in Yates' best work.
"Emily fucking Grimes is me," Yates was liable to rejoin of the novel's heroine, rather than accept a compliment for his gender-transcending empathy. An earlier work, A Special Providence (1969), had been an autobiographical account of the author's childhood and coming-of-age (or not) in the Second World War; it was, in Yates' eyes foremost, a relative failure. Struggling afterward with the question of how to objectify the raw material of his life for the purpose of art, Yates hit on the ingenious idea of making the "me character" (as he called it) a woman. For the sake of a more rounded picture, he phoned an old girlfriend named Natalie, who'd led the kind of independent and rather isolated life he had in mind for his protagonist.
A person of remarkable candor, Natalie was happy to tell Yates whatever he wanted to know—among other things, that she'd been married briefly to a man who told her he "hated [her] body," that she'd had two abortions in the '50s, that her drinking had gotten so bad that she lost her job and stayed drunk all day until, finally, she went to the Payne-Whitney walk-in mental health clinic and got help. Such was the embarrassment of riches that became Emily Grimes—"the original liberated woman," as her nephew Peter, an Episcopalian priest, characterizes her. The wounding irony of that remark is reflected in Emily's scornful response ("What are you—one of these 'hip' priests?"), given that her "liberation" has led to promiscuity, poverty, and despair.
By way of a dialectic, the life of Emily runs in counterpoint to that of her older sister Sarah, a woman with "a look of trusting innocence" who wishes that Emily would, like her, settle down and have children. "You're always telling me to 'marry' people, Sarah," her exasperated sister remarks. "Is marriage supposed to be the answer to everything?" If Yates were as strictly anti-feminist as he often affected to be, then the dutiful housewife Sarah would get the better shake in life; but as we know from the novel's opening line—"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life"—both women are in for a very rocky time of it. Indeed, Sarah Grimes is based (with harrowing particularity) on the author's sister, Ruth, a woman who devoted her adult life to playing the role of "happiest, most contented little housewife in the world" until she drank herself to death at the age of 46. And no wonder: Like her fictional surrogate, Ruth Yates was married to a lout who beat her on a regular basis. How often? "[O]nce or twice a month for about—well, twenty years," as Sarah Grimes matter-of-factly explains to her sister. Emily is sympathetic and offers the occasional lifeline but in the end decides that Sarah doesn't really want to be saved ("I love the guy").
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.
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 Cheever: A Life.