Saturday, 7 January 2012

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Yates throws a despairing shrug at Tolstoy when he opens The Easter Parade with
Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parent’s divorce.
The old priest’s advice to the young curate about sermons was:
- Tell them what you’re going to tell them. Tell them. Tell them what you have just told them.
In the end like one scrying the lees in the glass of life, the surviving sister says:
’Yes, I’m tired,’ she said. ‘And do you know a funny thing? I’m almost 50 years old and I’ve never understood anything in my whole life.’
Telling us:
The mother is ‘Pookie’. Yes, the girls Sarah and Emily are encouraged to call her that. Yates avoids the words peripatetic and peregrination in relation to the movement of Pookie about the various towns where she works in a modest capacity,certainly not as a Realtor which was plan A. The words alluded to and in general all linguistic flourishes are avoided in a controlled prose. Here’s the funeral of the father who departs early in the book:
There wasn’t much of a ceremony at the chapel. An electric organ played, a tired-looking man read a few nondenominational prayers, the casket was removed, and it was over.
Pookie is slapdash and approximate and her decline into alcoholism is mapped with precision by Yates who knew that region well. Emily the youngest daughter at Barnard College has come home for the weekend and they both are going to visit Sarah and Tony and their 3 children where they live on Long Island in a clapboard bungalow on the grounds of Tony’s fathers residence. In a nice touch we get a certain amount of real estate information.

Yates creates islands of omission. Though the word ‘snob’ is never used, Pookie is one, and her nerves dealing with Wilson in the big house lead her to babble and get drunk. Emily stays on the sherry which in that family amounts to a temperance drink.
By the time she was ready to leave at last Geoffrey Wilson had to help her to the door. It was getting dark. Emily took her arm - it felt soft and weak - and they made their way past trees and overgrown shrubbery towards the long road to the railroad station.
Actually the whole family have a problem with alcohol, even the father, though that information comes from mother and you know how alcoholics worry about other peoples drinking. Over the years the damage accumulates and the grip on things slackens. Clever Emily drifts from relationship to relationship with neurotic men. She has no luck or perhaps it is that the recapitulation of the primal family drama leads her towards older divorced men that trail issues.

I read it through at one sitting. It’s a short book, 225 pages in the Vintage Classics paperback. Now reading it again I find the low key tone just right for everyday tragedy. Excellent.


ktismatics said...

This post reminds me of how difficult I find it to engage in discussion of a novel. Unless I have the book open in front of me I'm left largely with impressions, most of which fade quickly for me after I've finished reading. I read both Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade relatively recently, and while I retain some distinct memories of the former, the latter has slipped largely off the viewing screen. Maybe that's a function of my judgment as to the relative merit of the two books; maybe it's because I found it easier to see myself in the world where Revolutionary Road unfolded. I recall that while reading Easter Parade I deemed it a sort of old-fashioned melodrama. Revolutionary Road was melodramatic too of course, but it was fierce. I admired that scene where the man (no longer recall his name) was discussing his advertising work over dinner and his thoughts circled back to his father in some intricate epicycle.

ombhurbhuva said...

Both of those novels have good characterisation. I associate melodrama with excesses in the plot department which have the intent of carrying the characters along. Revolutionary Road is probably the better of the two. Those are the only two books of Yates that I’ve read so I’m only going by report that Easter Parade was a return to form. Only since the movie has he been visible over here.

The absent father, even when he’s around, seems an American theme. Frank Wheeler and his Dad’s lack of patience with his attempts at carpentry. Then later the manager liking his computer brochure becomes the father figure that gives him approval even if it’s at something Frank despises. Nothing is underlined but it makes him wonder about the move to France. Again all unstated, not that the dots are that far apart.

I’ll be looking out for more Yates.

Another American writer that I think is a sort of quiet master is John Williams. I’ve read Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing.

ktismatics said...

I've never heard of Williams, but that doesn't mean anything. In requesting Stoner from the library I discovered it had been in circulation as recently as last month, so evidently someone around here has heard of Williams. He hailed from Denver, which is just down the road, so maybe he has a local following.

ombhurbhuva said...

I first heard of Williams from a radio critic and teacher of English in secondary school who is a reliable judge of quality. When he mentioned that John McGahern had written an introduction to Stoner that was enough. (NYRB paperback edition is now out I see) I'd be interested to know what you think of it.

ktismatics said...

Almost reluctantly I found myself both admiring and enjoying Stoner, which shares the depressing realism of Revolutionary Road and Easter Parade. Again, the story and prose feel old-fashioned, but then Stoner is an old-fashioned character, a kind of rough classic thwarted by the hard modernity of his time and place. At the same time one gets the sense that he was born too early, that he'd have more room to breathe had he come on the scene a few decades later. My reluctance stems I think from the narrator's evident fondness for Stoner, whose tragedies are pinned on his cold hysterical wife and his vindictive boss and the intolerance of bourgeois middle-American society. It might, though, be a distinctive genius of Williams to allow the reader slowly to develop, on his own as it were, a frustration with and even a mild disdain for the passive stoicism of Stoner. It's a memorable book. I put up an excerpt on my blog if you'd like to see a sample.