Introduction to The Collected Stories of Richard Yates

"Secret Hearts"
by Richard Russo

Here is what I've come to think of as my Richard Yates story.

The main residential street of Gloversville, New York, where I grew up and where my parents and grandparents spent most of their adult lives (there and in neighboring Johnstown) is Kingsborough Avenue, and it's divided into "Upper" and "Lower." Upper Kingsborough is wide and bordered by mature maples and elms, and it's where the finest houses were built back when the glove shops and tanneries were still in operation and there was, at least for a select few, money. Lower Kingsborough Avenue is narrower, its houses more modest, mostly split-level ranches and tiny capes, built with money from the GI Bill by men and women of my parents' generation.

These days, when I return to Gloversville, my mother is often with me, because the purpose of our trip is usually to visit her sister, and when I turn onto Lower Kingsborough my mother always studies the small, well-maintained houses set closer to the street and to one another than the larger homes farther up, and she invariably remarks that all these little houses are "cute as a button." To own one of them had been a dream of hers when she was a young woman married to my father, who had himself just returned from the war at a time when the entire nation was flushed with both victory and optimism about the future. To my mother, one of these fresh, new little houses wasn't "pie in the sky," her phrase for big, impossible dreams (like owning one of the grand houses on Upper Kingsborough), which is why to this day she can't quite fathom how such a modest dream managed to elude her. The answer, though, is simple enough. My father -- the man she chose to marry -- had no intention of settling down. Not then, not ever.

Why I think of this as a Richard Yates story will be made clear by the twenty-seven real Richard Yates stories collected here for the first time under one cover. They have been too long out of print, and as a result an entire generation of readers will be coming to them for the first time, and for such readers it is my special honor and pleasure to introduce the fictional world of these stories, to suggest how and why they work on us, and to speculate upon what sort of man would usher them into the world. I'm confident that readers will not need me to tell them how great the stories are, or what a cause for celebration it is that they are finally restored in print, or that no library, private or public, that pretends interest in American literature of the highest order, or in the history of the contemporary short story, is complete without them. The beauty and symmetry of Yates's stories will send readers all the way back to Chekhov looking for antecedents, and they'll recognize the platform -- the springboard really -- these stories provide for Raymond Carver and just about every other writer of realistic fiction in America today. Teaching at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Yates inspired a generation of talented young writers that included Andre Dubus, Theodore Weesner, and James Crumley, among others. And after almost a decade spent out of print, he continues to inspire almost fanatical devotion among writers. A couple of years ago, when a book tour took me to Iowa City, I happened to mention to my friend and former student, the writer John McNally, that I didn't have a copy of Liars in Love. He disappeared upstairs, returning moments later with a copy for me. When I asked how he happened to have an extra copy of a book that's so hard to find, he said that whenever he is in a strange city, he scours used bookstores for copies of Yates's books, buying up whatever he can find, in order to press them upon people who hadn't read him. How many had he given away in this fashion? McNally shrugged, grinning. Dozens? He didn't know, he'd lost track.

Yates has been described as a writer's writer by people who consider that a high compliment, but I suspect Yates himself would have understood that the phrase trails an unintended insult by suggesting that only other writers are sophisticated enough to appreciate his many gifts. The truth is that Richard Yates is not a sophisticated writer. He doesn't need to be; he's far too talented to have much use for either smoke or mirrors.

Astute readers will immediately be struck by how many of the stories collected here are about dreamers, and it is perhaps for this reason that it's hard to read them outside the context of that most famous American Dream story, The Great Gatsby. Yates admired no author more than Fitzgerald, as the writer-dreamer Jack Fields, the protagonist of Yates's autobiographical story "Saying Goodbye to Sally" suggests. Comparing Yates's dreamers to Fitzgerald's is immediately instructive. Gatsby, of course, is not so much the story of a great man as of an ordinary man with a great dream. Jimmy Gatz is determined not just to become rich and win Daisy Buchanan but, more audaciously, to negate the past and reinvent himself, even reshape the world, if need be. Fitzgerald set his novel in a world that is superficially similar to that of Yates's stories. In both cases, a world war had just concluded and America was victorious. Everything seemed possible except failure. But there were significant differences too. Perhaps because they have vivid memories not just of the war but also the Great Depression that preceded it, Yates's dreamers are less audacious, more cautious. They want things as badly as Jimmy Gatz, but they have less in the way of expectation. Living all but invisible lives, they're wary, unsure how much they have a right to hope for. Betty Meyers, a young mother and Navy wife with three kids, "trapped" on the Côte d'Azur, wants desperately to return home to Bayonne, New Jersey, a heartbreakingly modest and totally unironic ambition. In "A Wrestler with Sharks," Leon Sobel, who's written (but not published) nine books, wants a column and byline in a tiny trade union newspaper. Indeed, Yates wants us to understand, it may be the very modesty of such desires (for the little house, not the big one) that disguises their potential for life's most demoralizing failures. Yates understood that while we risk disappointment when we set for ourselves an ambitious goal and fail to achieve it, the challenge, in a sense, insulates us from the worst humiliation. Dream big and we're expected to fail. About the worst that can happen (Gatsby to the contrary notwithstanding) is that we'll be applauded for our pluck. Dream small, Yates seems to suggest, and we're expected to succeed. As a result, failure ensures not just disappointment, but humiliation, anguish, and, most dangerous of all, the impulse to dream smaller next time, thereby risking even greater failure. The characters we meet in Yates's stories are often already the victims of diminished expectation. Ken Platt, in "A Really Good Jazz Piano," assumes that when he and his best pal, Carson Wyler, meet two girls on the beach, he'll get the less attractive one, the "cute, freckled good-sport of a girl whose every cheerful glance and gesture showed she was used to taking second best."

Of course, not all of Yates's dreamers make the mistake of dreaming small. Cabby Bernie Silver in "Builders," a "poor, lost, brave little man, dreaming his huge and unlikely dream," clings tenaciously to a scheme that seems to the story's narrator, Bob Prentice, little more than a "pathetic delusion." Still, the story makes clear that while Bernie's dream of becoming the hero of a series of anecdotes about a wise, benevolent New York cabbie may be improbable, as Prentice suggests, "sillier things . . . have built empires in America." We realize, too, that the book of stories that keeps Bernie looking for the perfect writer masks a more modest goal that's shared by many of Yates's characters. Bernie would simply like to count for something, and his dogged pursuit of his dream, however improbable, keeps him heading somewhere, if only in his own imagination. And however improbable they may be, other people's dreams, as Prentice learns, have power. It's only when he buys into the little man's dream and writes a couple of Bernie's stories for him "I took that little bastard of a story and I built the hell out of it") that Bob Prentice actually becomes a writer, a dream he's been toying with for a long time without really committing to it. By writing the stories and thereby indirectly acknowledging the validity of Bernie's far-fetched dream, Prentice finds himself closer to realizing his own.

But if dreams are necessary to a life that's worth living, if they are what give purpose and direction to otherwise mundane existences, why then do so many of Yates's dreamers seem doomed to fail? What are we to make of the fact that modest dreams are as likely to fail as grand ones? Is it our nature to dream unwisely? Yates seems to understand as clearly as Fitzgerald that the cruelest promise of democracy is that anybody can be anything. All men may be created equal, but they become unequal in a heartbeat, and in these stories large dreams are often paired with mediocre talents. Bill Grove's mother, Helen, a sculptor featured in two of Yates's finest stories ("Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired" and "Regards at Home"), is not so much without talent as she is without enough talent to match her ambitions. Bernie Silver dreams of being special one day, but Helen assumes she already is, by virtue of her aspirations and superior sensibility. In "Joseph" she's commissioned to sculpt the head of the newly elected FDR, a stroke of luck she's determined to think of as her big chance, never suspecting that her meager talents cannot sustain her dream.

Indeed, it is luck that many of the Yates's characters blame for their failures. In "Jody Rolled the Bones" luck has a name -- Jody -- and it's Jody the young soldiers invoke when they call cadence during basic training: "Jody rolled the bones when yew left -- RIGHT!" When you're drafted, it's Jody who gets to stay home and steal your girl and everything else that's rightfully yours. It's luck, they believe, that causes one man to be born rich, another to be placed in the path of live ammunition. But the story itself makes clear that, regardless of our inclination to believe in luck as the prime determiner of human destiny, both good and bad fortune are largely an illusion. For one thing, human beings seem uniquely designed to mistake good luck for bad and vice versa. The young soldiers in the story may believe they've been unlucky to be drafted and even unluckier to be in the hated Sergeant Reece's platoon, but at least in the latter they couldn't have been luckier, because it's Reece who will make men of them, something these boys want without knowing it. What they think they want -- an easier life at boot camp -- could be deadly where they're headed, a fact they're blind to until Jody rolls the bones again and Reece is transferred, leaving them under the command of Ruby, a "good Joe" who could well get them killed with kindness and incompetence. What good is luck, Yates seems to ask, if we are too stupid or blind to recognize it on the rare occasions it visits us?

Just as tellingly, luck is always relative, which is why the deck so often seems stacked against Yates's characters, even when it isn't. The veterans' hospital in "Out with the Old" is divided into two wings, causing the tuberculosis patients, who feel they've got the worst of things, to remark, "Those paraplegic bastards think they own the goddamn place." Nor do the luckless grasp that even those they consider the luckiest are themselves beset by the same gnawing self-doubts as everyone else. A famous actor in "Saying Goodbye to Sally" is so insecure he makes an elaborate show of having read George Bernard Shaw, while the director who criticizes the actor for his ignorance ("three years from now he'll discover the Communist Party") demonstrates his own lack of self-confidence by repeatedly asking Sally, an agent's secretary, what she thinks of his work.

No, it's not Jody rolling the bones that's causing all the problems, nor is it the fact that the world plays us false, as John Fallon, the B.A.R. man (whose wife wears falsies), believes. For Yates, human destiny is rooted not in chance but in character. Jack Fields, the writer in "Saying Goodbye to Sally," lives in a squalid flat in New York before Jody smiles on him and he's hired to write a screenplay for pay he describes as "dizzying" (the same thing happened to Yates himself when he was hired to write a screenplay for William Styron's Lie Down in Darkness), but the place he rents in L.A. turns out to be a dead ringer, squalor-wise, for the one he left in New York, causing Jack to wonder if his ex-wife might be right about his having a self-destructive personality. Yates's people not only don't understand what's happening to them, most also lack the ability to sort things out upon reflection afterwards, which makes them vulnerable to making the same mistakes again. Just as Gatsby dies without understanding what has befallen him, so do Yates's characters struggle in vain for self-knowledge. McIntyre, a father admitted to the tuberculosis ward in "Out with the Old," feeling both helpless and useless, wants desperately to relieve some of the burden borne by his young, pregnant daughter. "Your old dad may not be good for much any more," he writes to her, "but he does know a thing or two about life and especially one important thing, and that is . . ." Mac's inability to finish that sentence speaks eloquently to Yates's belief that our human inability to understand our experience is a basic design flaw. In this way our most potent and necessary dreams can derive from simple misunderstanding. Bill Grove, who over the years has become an expert on his mother's myriad failures of self-knowledge ("she never seemed to realize that if people could see her underpants they might not care what kind of hat she was wearing"), is much slower to comprehend his own motives, that his dream of going off to Europe and becoming a writer may mask a more urgent need -- to escape his mother -- that he's unwilling to confront.

Yates's characters not only don't understand the source of their own desires, they undervalue their own strengths and virtues, discounting their kindness and decency, as if they can't quite imagine that these qualities will get them anywhere in life. Nor do they recognize true worth in others. Miss Snell, the grade-school teacher in "Fun with a Stranger," offers each of her students a perfect gift of love in the form of an eraser, something they'll badly need in their mistake-filled adult lives, but her gift is unwanted by children too young to understand its nature or meaning. Yates writes brilliantly about children in many of these stories, partly, it seems to me, because he understands that in important ways most of us remain children all our lives, perpetually attracted to all the wrong things, taken in repeatedly by whatever is cheap and eye-catching and superficial. "A Glutton for Punishment"'s Walter Henderson, who discovers at the age of nine the intense pleasures inherent in defeat and who practices falling after he's shot playing cowboys and Indians, never quite grasps that he's patterned his entire adult life on this childish game. Failure will forever be his only grace. In other stories, Yates questions the ranking of what we generally regard as virtues. Honesty is demonstrated to be no substitute for compassion in "A Natural Girl," and intelligence is often revealed to be the tool of cruelty, as in "Trying Out for the Race," where Elizabeth Hogan Baker, who "was much too good for the kind of work she did," in a revealing gesture tosses aside The New Republic before ridiculing her best friend, Lucy Towers, whom she believes to be her intellectual inferior.

If the reason we're pulled into Richard Yates's stories so quickly has to do with our understanding of what his characters so desperately desire, what often keeps us turning pages is the more gradual revelation of those same characters' anxieties. The most primal of these, it seems, is loneliness, the fear of which causes the people in Yates's stories to endure terrible humiliations. As novelist Stewart O'Nan has observed in his fine, insightful essay on Yates in The Boston Review (which argues eloquently the need for this very volume of collected stories), much of Yates's power as a writer derives from his unwillingness to avert his eyes from his characters' most intense suffering. Grace, in "The Best of Everything," realizes by the end of the story that her impending marriage is a horrible mistake that will likely result in a life of searing regret for both herself and Ralph, her dimwitted fiancé. Her willingness to endure the humiliation of sexual rejection the night before her wedding can only be understood in terms of what she clearly understands to be her alternative -- a solitary life. The long concluding scene in which she stands, vulnerable and nearly naked, both literally and metaphorically, as Ralph, utterly blind to her offer of love, impatiently explains how important his buddies are to him, is enough to make any reader squirm. Nor, Yates seems to say, are such torments reserved for the weak and the shy. Even the Carson Wylers of the world, who seem to have everything going for them, in the end, when their thin veneer of self-confidence is stripped away, reveal themselves to be as panic-stricken as the Ken Platts who idolize them:

It wasn't what he said that mattered -- for a minute it seemed that nothing Carson said would ever matter again -- it was that his face was stricken with the uncannily familiar look of his own heart, the very face he himself, Lard-Ass Platt, had shown all his life to others: haunted and vulnerable and terribly dependent, trying to smile, a look that said Please don't leave me alone.

Indeed, Yates suggests, it may even be this worst of night terrors -- of ending up alone in the world and trying to smile -- that is responsible for our most tragic human blindness, our eager willingness to confuse what is true with what we want to be true. Take Paul Colby, the young soldier of "A Compassionate Leave," who manages, against very long odds, to remain a virgin despite his three-day pass to Paris at the end of the war. He would like to think it's Jody, rolling the bones against him, but finally, when he runs out of money during his last night in Paris and no longer can afford "even the most raucous of middle-aged whores," he has to admit that "he had probably arranged in his secret heart for this to be so." The need to conceal and to deny what's in our secret hearts is in the end what is responsible for the worst kind of dishonesty there is: self-deception, our willingness to sell ourselves a bill of goods. Bill Grove and his wife keep telling each other (and themselves) that they're in love, only to conclude years later that in reality "neither of us had anywhere else to go."

In the end I think it is Yates's relentless, unflinching investigation of our secret hearts, and his speaking to us in language as clear and honest and unadorned and unsentimental and uncompromising as his vision, that makes him such a great writer, and which makes the publication of these collected stories a literary event of such significance. Yates has been called the voice of his generation -- that is, my parents' generation -- and for me part of the fun of rereading the stories originally published in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love, along with the other stories collected here, most published for the first time, was that doing so was like having a long, extended conversation with my father and mother on subjects we'd somehow managed to avoid all our lives. Still, I don't think that any writer gets to be the voice of his or her generation without transcending that generation, and that is what I believe these stories do. Because Richard Yates, in his quiet way, remains one of the most subversive writers I know. Critics have pointed out that Yates subverted the American character in his fiction, and it's true that there's much that the author found empty and even harmful in American institutions and American culture. But it's not just our "American" character that Yates lays bare in these stories. It's our deepest human nature. Peel away the carefully constructed layers of self-deception, and we discover that too often we're all simply horse traders, eager to move up in the world by swapping a shabby job, house, friend, spouse, even child, for a newer, better one. It's being traded, or knowing that we would be traded if we could be, that on occasion allows Yates's characters to see things in what one of them calls "the clear light of self-hatred."

Such brutal insight, I suspect, along with what Yates's former student and friend, the writer Robert Lacy, has referred to as his "seemingly congenital inability to sugarcoat," that may be the reason Yates never sold well in life and why, for a time, at least, his fiction has been allowed to slip out of print. And it's also probably the reason some critics have wistfully regretted the fact that these stories hold out so little hope, even accusing Yates of reveling in the failures his characters must endure. There may be some truth to the charge. There is perverse pleasure in pain, in suffering, even in humiliation. Bill Grove can't deny the enjoyment he gets when he takes his mother to get her teeth pulled, "hearing her grunt and shudder with the shock of each extraction." But his satisfaction has less to do with enjoying her pain than it does with the fact that what's happening to her is real, something she can't deny or (as is Helen's wont) make a romance out of. Perhaps, Yates suggests in "Builders," the need to make a romance out of ugly reality is a basic human craving, as is the accompanying need to disguise what we're doing from ourselves. The stories Bernie Silver wants Bob Prentice to tell about him are not so much lies as romances, realities seen in a certain light, and it is that light Bernie is most insistent upon. The Bernie Silver of Prentice's stories is not an insignificant cabby, "his fingertips stained a shining gray from handling other people's coins and dollar bills all day," but rather a better, wiser Bernie, a Bernie that the little man still believes himself capable of becoming, a Bernie illuminated by the same light of hope that some of Yates's critics yearned for. "'Where are the windows?' [Bernie] demanded, spreading his hands. . . . 'Where does the light come in?'" Yet for Richard Yates, no matter how much he may have longed to bathe his characters in such light ("God knows," Prentice concedes, "there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us"), he believes this light to be a lie. The secret heart, in the end, is a windowless place, where light comes in "as best it can" through "cracks . . . left in the builder's faulty craftsmanship."

The excitement one feels reading these dark stories, I believe, is the exhilaration of encountering, recognizing, and embracing the truth. It's not a pretty truth? Too bad. That we recognize ourselves in the blindness, the neediness, the loneliness, even the cruelty of Yates's people, will have to suffice. And, in the end, Yates judges not the characters in these stories, nor us (we who recognize ourselves in them), nor himself, nor even God (that other faulty builder) too harshly. For me, one of the most enduring images in Richard Yates's stories is of the protagonist of "A Convalescent Ego," a man named Bill, who has recently come home from the hospital to recover from a serious operation. Physically diminished and feeling useless, he unwisely attempts to help his wife, who is supporting both of them during his convalescence, with the housework. Shaking the mop out the window, its head comes off, falling several stories into the courtyard below, leaving Bill "absurdly shaking the naked stick over the windowsill." Dignity would seem to be pretty much out of the question. Probably a lot of other things we want are out of the question too, including, perhaps, if we want it too badly, the modest little house on Lower Kingsborough.

Richard Russo
September 2000

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