As I was in the mood for some American realism I turned to a copy of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, a 1962 short story collection by Richard Yates; when I had finished it I wanted to read more. Yates’ second volume of short-stories, Liars in Love, was published in 1981; all the stories from both of these publications are included in the Collected Stories as well as nine more that had only appeared in magazines. Annoyingly the Vintage version gives us a list of copyright dates and a list of the magazines they originally appeared in but they do not clarify which story was published when or where. A short introduction with a bit of info would have been nice but these Vintage editions do have some cracking 1950s style covers (see below) which partially compensates for this.
Reading all of Yates’s stories in one go highlights the similarity of the stories. Most of them are set in the ’50s or ’60s and seem to be based on autobiographical elements of his life as the characters are always of the same age as Yates, they are sometimes about writers, or younger men working in offices, or stories from a childhood in the ’30s. They often portray marriages that are on the verge of falling apart with couples arguing, separating and cheating on each other. There are a few stories set in a T.B. clinic and some concerning WWII veterans. But he also occasionally writes from a child’s perspective or from a woman’s perspective and he does this amazingly well. Some readers may find Yates a bit bleak but I don’t find his fiction bleak, just a bit ‘grubby’ at times.
In A Glutton for Punishment we learn about Walter Henderson’s childhood love of playing dead, or rather the dramatic act of dying after being shot by other boys. Walter wasn’t very good at sports but he was a master of dying. Twenty-five years later Walter is at work in his office, he’s anxious as he’s certain he’s about to be sacked as he has underperformed since taking on his current role.
There was nothing to do now but let the thing happen and try to take it as gracefully as possible.
That was when the childhood memory began to prey on his mind, for it suddenly struck him—and the force of it sent his thumbnail biting deep into the secret matchbook—that letting things happen and taking them gracefully had been, in a way, the pattern of his life. There was certainly no denying that the role of good loser had always held an inordinate appeal for him.
Sure enough he’s called into the office to be fired. But this is where Walter ‘shines’ as he says goodbye to his colleagues, thanking them for their help over the years, he collects his possessions and confidently exits the building—it’s a perfect performance. He thinks about trying to keep it a secret from his wife until he can find another job but later on that evening the temptation to ‘perform’ again gets the better of him.
“Well, darling—” he began. His right hand came up and touched the middle button of his shirt, as if to unfasten it, and then with a great deflating sigh he collapsed backward into the chair, one foot sliding out on the carpet and the other curled beneath him. It was the most graceful thing he had done all day. “They got me,” he said.
In Builders the narrator tells us how he had a low-paid job on the financial news desk of a paper back in 1948. He was a young writer who dreamt of being the next Hemingway but he ended up getting involved with ghost-writing a series of stories for a cab-driver, Bernie Silver, who tricks him into writing up some of his notes as stories. Bernie dreams of his book selling well and eventually a film being made from it. He claims to know people in the movie business who will help and dangles the promise of future royalties in front of the writer. Bernie is not quite a conman but he has a dream to ‘build’ his book and he intends to do it any way he can, even if that means duping young writers into writing up his stories for him for next to nothing. It’s an entertaining story.
Fun with a Stranger is about the narrator’s childhood experience of his third grade teacher, Miss Snell. She had a reputation amongst the schoolchildren as a bit of an old dragon. As I love a good literary character description here is a description of Miss Snell:
She was probably sixty, a big rawboned woman with a man’s face, and her clothes, if not her very pores, seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust that is the smell of school. She was strict and humorless, preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming, frequent trips to the bathroom, and, the worst of all, “coming to school without proper supplies.”
The story leads up to a suitably grim ‘Christmas party’ organised by Miss Snell on the last day of school before Christmas.
If anything the seven stories in Liars in Love are even better than those in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness; they’re a bit longer, a bit more polished and there is more variety. A Natural Girl begins with Susan Andrews, a university student, telling her father that she doesn’t love him anymore. Susan ends up marrying one of the lecturers and the story covers the resulting ups and downs of this strange marriage. As usual with Yates’ couples they end up separating; Susan tells David, as she did with her dad, that she no longer loves him. When asked why, she replies:
“There is no why,” she said. “There’s no more why to not loving than there is to loving. Isn’t that something most intelligent people understand?”
Trying Out for the Race is about the headstrong unmotherly single mother of Nancy and her friend Lucy. They decide to live together as a way of pooling their resources. Elizabeth doesn’t get on with Lucy or her children, Nancy doesn’t get on with Lucy’s children or her mother. It’s a chaotic household and gets more chaotic when one of Elizabeth’s ex’s shows up. In the title story Warren Matthews moves to London with his wife and child. When she leaves him and returns to America he gets hitched up with a friendly prostitute and finds it difficult disentangling himself from this arrangement. Saying Goodbye to Sally is about a New York writer, Jack Fields, who has just finished his first novel and upon getting a job to write a screenplay moves temporarily to Los Angeles. He hooks up with his agent’s secretary, Sally, an attractive slightly older woman. She introduces him to her unusual friends and housemates.
“It’s beginning to sound like you live in a pretty fucked-up household.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “Somebody else I knew called it ‘degenerate.’ That seemed too strong a word, but later I could see what he meant.”
It’s a fun story with loads of crazy characters. Ok, I’ve raced through the Liars in Love stories a bit but I should also mention that the nine extra ‘Uncollected Stories’ are well worth reading as well. I want to read even more Yates now.