Sunday, June 16, 2013

Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road (1961) was Richard Yates' first novel, and also the first of his books that I read, back in 2007. It blew me off my feet. Wanting more, I ordered used copies of The Easter Parade (1976), A Good School (1978),  Young Hearts Crying (1984) and Cold Spring Harbor (1986). Now, having read them all, I am still an ardent Yates fan. His later novels didn't have quite the punch of Revolutionary Road, but they are insightful and moving. The Richard Yates archive page has a select handful of quotes and blurbs about his work. There are only seven blurbs, all from highly reputable sources, and six of them refer to Revolutionary Road. That was a tough novel to top.

What I disliked most about Young Hearts Crying was its title, which drips of syrupy romance, but Yates is one of the world's great anti-romantics. He gives us characters who are excruciatingly realistic. They rarely see their own or each other's flaws until it's too late; the reader can predict that their love affairs and marriages will end miserably, but the characters themselves plow onward, vainly hoping that something will save them. As we do.  And it never does.

Here Yates gives us another man of his own era, Michael Davenport, who served as an air force gunner in World War II and then attended Harvard on the GI Bill.  He falls for Lucy, a Radcliffe student, and they marry not long after his graduation.  On their wedding night, Lucy informs Michael that she is worth $3-4 million.  Michael refuses her wealth and insists that he will support them as best he can as he pursues a career as a writer of poetry and plays.  He does manage to provide a reasonable if humble life for Lucy and their daughter Laura.

Michael thinks things are going along well enough in their marriage, until  he attacks the author of a book that Lucy is reading simply because the book is on the NY Times best-seller list, which, in his mind, signals its banality. Lucy, possibly envious of the author's financial success, suggests that someone who can write a book that a lot of readers want or need has accomplished something worthwhile.
"Oh, come on, Lucy, you know better than that. It's never been a question of what people 'want' or 'need' -- it's a question  of what they're willing to put up with. It's the same rotten little commercial principle that determines what we get in the movies and on television. It's the manipulation of public taste by the lowest common denominator. Oh, Jesus, I know you know what I mean."
There was a silence of ten or fifteen seconds before she said, "Yes, I know what you mean, but I don't agree with you. I've always known what you meant about everything; that's never been the trouble. The trouble is I've never agreed with you -- ever -- and the appalling thing is I've never even come to realise it until the past few months." And she stood up, looking defiant and oddly fearful at the same time. 
Part 2 focuses on Lucy and Michael after the divorce, including their various other short-term relationships, some intense, some frivolous, all failed.  Laura, their daughter, bounces back and forth between them, never seeming to get adequate attention from either.

Eventually, Michael marries again, this time one of Laura's former guidance counselors, Sarah, who is about twenty years younger than he. Although he had always rejected working in academia, Sarah convinces him to apply for teaching jobs at universities. The only offer he gets is from a small college in Kansas, so off they go.  It is there that Michael gets a call for help from Laura, who is destitute and desperate, living in a San Francisco tenement with a group of hippies. Michael finds her and brings her back to Kansas, where he and Sarah try to get her back onto solid ground. Michael loses his temper with his daughter one morning and is displeased to see Sarah frowning at him. Once again, he gives an 'I'm the man here,and I know what I'm doing' monologue.
"Do you know what you do sometimes?" Sarah asked him. "You let your own rhetoric run away with you until you don't even know what you're saying... I certainly hope you have better control than that in your teaching, or you may have a lot of very bewildered students on your hands."
After a little while -- however long it took him to decide not to be angry with her -- he said, "I think we'd better let the teaching and the students be my business, don't you?"  
Just as he either forgot or overlooked that Lucy had a Radcliffe degree in English when declaring himself the literary authority in the household, Michael forgets that Sarah was a professional educator before she married him. He congratulates himself for not losing his temper with her, but he fails to see that his condescension is just as corrosive. When Michael goes east to see about a position at Boston University, Sarah remains behind, her intentions unclear. Michael agonises about this. Briefly.
The bar at the hotel would be open for business; that was nice because it meant Michael Davenport could sit in its murmurous shadows, alone with his skepticism, and have a drink before going upstairs.
She might come and live with him; she might not; and then there was another dreadful possibility: She might come and stay with him only a little while, in a spirit of tentative compliance, waiting for her better judgment to set her free. "... Everybody's essentially alone," she'd told him, and he was beginning to see a lot of truth in that.
Defining success as an artist -- painter, poet, playwright, theatre director -- is something else with which Yates wrestles. Does commercial success equal artistic sell-out, inauthenticity and failure? Michael alternately adores and despises two painter friends, one of whom has achieved commercial success. Lucy has a disastrous fling with a summer theatre director who lets nothing or no one stand in his career path. Yates wasn't a nice guy, and neither are his characters, but the most compelling portraits are never airbrushed.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, to me commercial success does indicate a tendency towards the pedestrian and plebian! Why settle for popularity and superficiality when we can achieve greatness? Lots of popular musicians, authors and playwrights could achieve so much more if they didn't try so darned hard to be popular and to sell their music/books/plays.


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