On Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade (1976) and Cold Spring Harbor (1986)

Easter ParadeCold Spring Harbor

I had almost forgotten how fascinating it is to read several books of the same author, one after the other. You see patterns emerge, recurring motifs, similar themes. Maybe not every author’s work is as homogenous as Yates’ is. In his case, the books are variations on the same themes. Some readers might find it repetitive to read so many of his novels, but I liked to see the patterns and differences emerge. Comparing The Easter Parade with Cold Spring Harbor was particularly rewarding. Most of Yates’ main themes are already present in Revolutionary Road but The Easter Parade and Cold Spring Harbor take them one step further.

The similarities of The Easter Parade and Cold Spring Harbor are striking. In both books we have excentric, almost laughable, mothers who are prone to drinking. We have struggling daughters and/or sons, who desperately try to live a better life but fail hopelessly. We watch those daughters and sons have kids and already know they will pass on the “loser gene”. Divorce is as much a recurring theme as alcoholism, lack of ambition, self-deception, and a failure to stand up for oneself.

The Easter Parade tells the story of a mother, Pookie, and her two daughters, Sarah and Emily. From the frist sentence on we know the story will not be a happy one.

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.

If ever a sentence summed up the books of an author, then this is it. Not only does it tell us that his characters will not be happy, but it places them firmly in a family tradition, which predestines them for unhappiness. This is an extremely pessimistic view of families. While I agree, it’s very difficult to free yourself from the influence of a dysfunctional family, I’m not as pessimistic as Richard Yates. I do believe it’s possible.

The two daughters in The Easter Parade live very different lives. While Sarah gets married early and has kids, Emily is a free spirit, who strives for a career and has many lovers. She does get married but the marriage doesn’t last. We can judge how pessimistic Yates was, when we follow Emily’s life. The only reasons, for me, why she couldn’t be happy was that her family prevented her. The strings that attached her were too tight, even after she left and went to live far away from them.

Cold Spring Harbor tells the story of different people. Evan Shepard comes from a broken home, although his parents aren’t divorced. His father could never live the life he wanted to live and his mother is a severely depressed alcoholic. Evan marries too early, gets a divorce, and then meets his second wife, Rachel and her family. Rachel’s mother resembles Pookie. She too has two kids, a daughter and a son, she is divorced, has illusions of grandeur and drinks too much. About halfway into the novel, we know that Rachel will follow in her footsteps and possibly pass her unhappiness on to her child. We do have hope for the son though.

Failed marriages and divorce are recurring themes but, unfortunately, Yates’ characters experience other forms of misery. They are either not ambitious and therefore never achieve any type of professional fulfillment, or they are ambitious but not good enough at what they are doing and will never know success.

Both novels are sad and tragic but, strangely enough, they didn’t depress me. Yates’s outlook is pessimistic but when you look at his characters closely, you see that the misfortune is the result of their own doing. You don’t need to let your parents unhappy lives/marriages drag you down. Just because your parents drink, that doesn’t mean you have to start drinking as well. Maybe it’s odd, but in a way I found the books almost comforting because, maybe unbeknownst to Richard Yates himself, they seemed to be telling— this only happened to these people because they didn’t free themselves.

And then, like in Revolutionary Road – there’s the writing which is simply amazing. He’s got a knack for describing people like not many other authors. Actually, this aspect of his writing, reminded me a lot of Jane Austen. I already felt that when reading Revolutionary Road but after these two books, even more. Like Jane Austen, he can see right through people and phrase this in a witty way. The biggest difference is the fate he’s got in store for them. Not one of them is allowed a Happy Ending à la Austen. That said, his observations and descriptions are so masterful that they always cheer me up.

I’m not sure which of the three novels I’ve read so far I liked best. Possibly The Easter Parade. Cold Spring Harbor is like another version of that book; a slightly less perfect one.

Here’s my review of Revolutionary Road.

Matthew Frank: If I Should Die (2014)

If I Should Die

I’ve seen so many rave reviews of this crime novel, that I had to pick it up. It’s a police procedural, set in London. I’m not sure whether this is a first in a series but it’s possible. The main character is trainee detective, Joseph Stark, a twenty-five-year-old Irak and Afghan veteran, dealing with heavy PTSD. He’s still recovering from an ambush that cost the lives of his comrades and has left him scarred and wounded.

When Stark begins his work at the precinct, repeated attacks on homeless people are worrying the police. When one of the victims dies, the investigation intensifies. Things get chaotic when a homeless man confesses that he’s murdered someone. How are these attacks linked and who are the perpetrators? Only when the police find out that the homeless man is a veteran (Falkland), do they make progress, as Stark is able to communicate with him.

The book offers some interesting insight into what happened and what happens to veterans in Britain. It also explores youth gangs and homelessness. The characters are realistic and likeable. The writing’s tight, the social commentary pertinent. But – I was the wrong reader for this. The book is more than just a crime novel, it’s a character study of a young veteran with PTSD. All the reviews I read, praised that aspect, called it new and gripping. Unfortunately I couldn’t even tell you how many times I’ve come across the same character in books, movies, and TV series. Admittedly, more movies than books but nonetheless, the PTSD Afghan or Irak veteran has almost become a cliché. This novel adds nothing new. The worst parts for me were those dealing with the ambush in Afghanistan. I’ve seen too many movies dealing with this to find it of any interest. Maybe it’s unfair, but I felt I had to say this because I’m sure, there are others with my interests who might not find this part of the novel original.

So, if you’ve never watched a film about recent wars – this novel could be for you. It doesn’t only show what PTSD means, but it makes it very clear that even decorated veterans may very well end up homeless because nobody cares what happens to them once they have done their duty. I still enjoyed parts of this book because the writing is assured, the investigation and the social commentary are interesting and the characters are appealing. However, I found it was too long (460 pages). Did I find it gripping? No, but sometimes, interesting is enough.

Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961) or Why is Richard Yates a Writer’s Writer?

Revolutionary Road

The first time I came across the name Richard Yates was in 2006 when his short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was translated into German. All the big newspapers reviewed and praised it. I think that must have been about the same time, he was rediscovered in the US, which then led to the translations. I’m not sure why it took me another nine years to finally pick up one of his books. Be it as it may, I’m so glad I finally did. After finishing Revolutionary Road, I started to read up on him and that’s when I came across this very long, very insightful article by Stewart O’Nan: The Lost World of Richard Yates. It was written in 1999 – before the rediscovery. It’s interesting because O’Nan not only tries to capture why he thinks Yates is an amazing author but also goes into lengthy musings on why he was never successful. For me, it wasn’t surprising that it took so long to discover him in Germany, but that he wasn’t successful in the US or other English-speaking countries did come as a surprise. Stewart O’Nan’s central thesis is that Yates is a writer’s writer. Not a typical one, though. I’ll get to that again, after the review of Revolutionary Road.

Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple who’s living in the suburbs of New York. The book opens with an amateur play in which April has the main role. At first it looks like it could be a success. Initially, April’s performance is good enough to make her husband fantasize what her success will mean for them. He imagines how April will be admired and how it will ultimately make him a center of admiration too and how he will pretend to be all modest about it. But then the play goes wrong and turns into a farce, exposing all the actors, including April to ridicule. It’s a devastating moment. Not so much because the play goes wrong but because the Wheeler’s dreams are shattered. April, who studied acting once, isn’t a good actress after all. And Frank, who imagined his wife’s stellar performance would reflect on him as well, feels just as ashamed as she does, maybe even more so.

This scene is a perfect introduction to the novel and the couple April and Frank Wheeler. While the outcome is dramatic for them, it’s not as such tragic but it contains all the elements of the future tragedy.

Yates introduces us here to a couple who lives a somewhat mediocre life. He’s working for a company he doesn’t appreciate, doing a job that bores him to death. She’s a housewife and stay-at-home-mom, the last thing she ever wanted to be. This as such is sad but what makes it sadder is the fact that they still think they are special and different from anybody else. But every time they want to prove themselves that they are more cultivated, wittier, unconventional, their unrealistic dreams crash against reality and leave them bitter, disillusioned, and filled with an anger they take out on each other.

I must admit, it took me over a hundred pages until I started to appreciate what Yates was doing. I hated and despised these two characters so much. Their aspirations and pretences showed us that they were anything but special but mediocre and petty. Since one of Yates’s admittedly brilliant techniques is to show us Frank’s interior monologue, we’re constantly in the head of a real douchebag. As I said, I was so distracted by the story and found the characters so off-putting, that I almost missed to pay attention to Yates’s narrative techniques. Not only is it brilliant to let Frank’s interior monologue clash with reality, it’s also quite funny.

At the heart of the story is April’s dream to leave and start a new life in Paris. The interesting thing about it is that while it may seem wild, it’s a totally feasible plan, yet they are bound to fail. Why and how they fail is shown in a masterful way.

The most tragic and paradoxical thing about April and Frank Wheeler isn’t that they never live their dream but that they try, if only for a very brief moment, to live it.

I said at the beginning of this post that Yates was, for a long time, considered to be a writer’s writer. This was surprising to me at first because usually writer’s writers are stylists, often using lyrical prose. Yates does write well but his writing is accessible, smooth, simple, almost free of figures of speech. He’s not strong on descriptions, hardly uses atmosphere or mood. So what is it then? It’s amazing how brilliantly he describes people and their interactions. His dialogue and interior monologue is sharp and witty. But more than that, his choices of scenes and structure are admirable. I wondered constantly – how will he capture this or that? Whose point of view will he choose next? And, most importantly – how will he end this novel? I wasn’t interest in the ending from a plot perspective but from a perspective of author’s choice. I felt that there had to be a major “bang”. What would it be?

These are reasons why I agree with O’Nan— he is a writer’s writer. After having found O’Nan’s essay,  I came across John Mullan’s four part piece on Revolutionary Road in The Guardian – you can find it here Part I Imaginary Dialogue, Part II The Epigraph, Part II Comic Dialogue, Part IV The Ending. Reading it confirmed my impressions. Yates is a highly conscious writer. His style may be effortless, his structure and narrative choices are not. One just has to think of the title. Revolutionary Road is the street on which the Wheelers live. It’s close to a suburban nightmare called “Revolutionary Hill”, where all the houses are candy-colored, cute abominations. Not so the Wheeler’s street and house. Nonetheless, it’s suburbia and even in a part that’s not as affluent. Knowing that they read signs and interpret them in a spirit of self-aggrandisement, the name of the road becomes ironic. The Wheeler’s are a lot of things but they are not revolutionary nor rebellious. If anything they are self-deluded and narcissistic.

Revolutionary Road was my first Richard Yates but it won’t be the last. I’m already halfway through Easter Parade and want to read Cold Spring Harbor and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness after that.

I had to watch the movie after finishing the book. Of course, it’s not as good but what bothered me the most was that the Frank Wheeler in the movie was almost likable.

Literature and War Readalong 2016

Storm Warning1914The HuntersBilly Lynn's Halftime WalkAll For Nothing

A few of you have already been wondering whether or not there will be another Literature and War Readalong. As you can see, there will be another one, but, like last year, it will be a mini-edition, although I included one book more.

Storm Warning

February, Monday 29

Storm Warning: Echoes of Conflict by Vanessa Gebbie, 120 pages, UK, 2010, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Storm Warning explores the echoes and aftershocks of human conflict in a series of powerful stories in which the characters are tested, sometimes to breaking point. Gebbie pulls no punches, exploring the after-effects of atrocity and sometimes, the seeds of atrocity itself.


March, Thursday 31

1914  – 14 by Jean Echenoz, 120 pages France 2012, WWI

Here’s the blurb:

Jean Echenoz turns his attention to the deathtrap of World War I in 1914. Five Frenchmen go off to war, two of them leaving behind young women who long for their return. But the main character in this brilliant novel is the Great War itself. Echenoz, whose work has been compared to that of writers as diverse as Joseph Conrad and Laurence Sterne, leads us gently from a balmy summer day deep into the relentless – and, one hundred years later, still unthinkable – carnage of trench warfare.

The Hunters

May, Tuesday 31

The Hunters by James Salter, 233 pages, US 1957, War in Korea

Here’s the blurb:

Captain Cleve Connell arrives in Korea with a single goal: to become an ace, one of that elite fraternity of jet pilots who have downed five MIGs. But as his fellow airmen rack up kill after kill – sometimes under dubious circumstances – Cleve’s luck runs bad. Other pilots question his guts. Cleve comes to question himself. And then in one icy instant 40,000 feet above the Yalu River, his luck changes forever. Filled with courage and despair, eerie beauty and corrosive rivalry, James Salter’s luminous first novel is a landmark masterpiece in the literature of war.

Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk

September, Friday 30

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain,  307 pages, US 2012, War in Iraq

Here’s the blurb:

His whole nation is celebrating what is the worst day of his life

Nineteen-year-old Billy Lynn is home from Iraq. And he’s a hero. Billy and the rest of Bravo Company were filmed defeating Iraqi insurgents in a ferocious firefight. Now Bravo’s three minutes of extreme bravery is a YouTube sensation and the Bush Administration has sent them on a nationwide Victory Tour.

During the final hours of the tour Billy will mix with the rich and powerful, endure the politics and praise of his fellow Americans – and fall in love. He’ll face hard truths about life and death, family and friendship, honour and duty.

Tomorrow he must go back to war.

All For Nothing

November, Friday 25

All For NothingAlles umsonst by Walter Kempowski, 352 pages, Germany 2006, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Winter, January 1945. It is cold and dark, and the German army is retreating from the Russian advance. Germans are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot. But in a rural East Prussian manor house, the wealthy von Globig family tries to seal itself off from the world. Peter von Globig is twelve, and feigns a cough to get out of his Hitler Youth duties, preferring to sledge behind the house and look at snowflakes through his microscope. His father Eberhard is stationed in Italy – a desk job safe from the front – and his bookish and musical mother Katharina has withdrawn into herself. Instead the house is run by a conservative, frugal aunt, helped by two Ukrainian maids and an energetic Pole. Protected by their privileged lifestyle from the deprivation and chaos around them, and caught in the grip of indecision, they make no preparations to leave, until Katharina’s decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. Superbly expressive and strikingly vivid, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the self-delusions, complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end.


Five books from four countries, covering four different wars. The books are all rather short and quite diverse. For the first time, I have included a collection of short stories. And I included the first novel on the war in Korea.

As always, I hope that many of you will feel tempted to join me.