I was first turned on to the writing of Richard Yates some four or five years ago. My friend JL told me that, upon finishing Fred Exley’s A Fan’s Notes—a book I was devouring and loving at the time—Yates’s Revolutionary Road was waiting for me. JL made it seem like Yates was the next logical place to go after Exley. Once I finished the pair, I saw his point, and I was happy to have read the two together like that. They seemed to feed off of each other, inform each other, and really help you get a sense of a certain time and a certain mentality of an era. It was like reading two Murakami books back-to-back, or—even better—like reading The Sun Also Rises just after a re-read of Gatsby.
Since my first go at Revolutionary Road those years ago, I’ve picked up a few other Yates books, but I hadn’t read much more than a story or two here or there until this past month. Looking at the shelves in my office one night, Yates’s The Easter Parade caught my eye, and pulling it down off the shelf, I decided it was time to see what more Yates had to tell me, and I immediately sat down with the thing.
Revolutionary Road had been a dark, sad affair, filled with an unhappy married couple, frustrated artists, and the like and, upon starting The Easter Parade, it didn’t look like this later novel in Yates’s oeuvre was going to be much different. The very first line is pretty telling: “Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.” The novel begins with the sisters around the time of the divorce, then follows the two into their unfortunate adult lives.
If you don’t like depressing novels, I would suggest staying away from Mr. Yates. If, however, you enjoy well-crafted, beautifully written fiction that will leave its characters etched in your brain because they are so realistic, Yates is your man. Where Revolutionary Road articulates what goes wrong when a couple sticks it out through a bad marriage, The Easter Parade demonstrates what goes wrong when the same kind of couple divorces. So no, not an uplifting, life-affirming book. Not a book you’d want to recommend to your mother. But, my God, what a moving novel.
And not without its humor, either. My favorite part of the book is when Emily Grimes—the younger of the two sisters—starts dating a rather-pretentious Yale Younger poet named Jack and decides to follow him to Iowa, where he’s been offered a teaching gig. The way Yates describes Jack and the things he has to say about the poets at Iowa are bitter and resentful, but also pretty hilarious if you know how poets can be. Because I’ve heard that Yates taught temporarily at Iowa, I couldn’t help but visualize Jack as looking like Yates. Which only made me see the ridiculous character as not only a general jab at all writers, but a very self-deprecatory jab too.
After finishing The Easter Parade, I had an impulse to go back and read Revolutionary Road. Maybe that’s because I like heartbreak, but I think it’s because my friend KC claims Easter Parade to be the better of the two, and I want to judge for myself. If I want a real downer, my old friend JL assures me the 688-page biography of Yates is always down the street at the library.
Scott Silsbe is a writer and a rocker living in Garfield in Pittsburgh. He is an editor at The New Yinzer, a rocker in the bands Workshop and Samoan Cats, and he owns a Hines Ward throw-back jersey.