Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (1962) Vintage (2008) 240 pp
I’m planning on working through Yates’s work in order of publication, so the second book on the docket is Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, his book of short stories written mostly in the 50s before Revolutionary Road was published. You may have seen on my post for Revolutionary Road some caution against reading his books too close together. I feel that that is a good idea; however, I am glad I read these stories closely after reading Revolutionary Road. It’s possible I would have enjoyed them more for literary reasons had I not been comparing them to Revolutionary Road — a truly marvelous book — but I really enjoyed seeing how Yates the writer developed during this decade. And I did enjoy them for literary reasons too.
To start things off, here is the list of stories. As you could probably tell from the title, there are eleven:
- Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern (1954)
- The Best of Everything (1952)
- Jody Rolled the Bones (1952)
- No Pain Whatsoever (1951)
- A Glutton for Punishment (1953)
- A Wrestler with Sharks (1954)
- Fun with a Stranger (1952)
- The B.A.R. Man (1954)
- A Really Good Jazz Piano (1951-58)
- Out with the Old (1953-57)
- Builders (1961)
You also probably gleaned from the title that all eleven have to do with loneliness. Though the stories themselves vary in perspective, theme, place, etc., all are focused on individual loneliness. As in Revolutionary Road, however, the individuals — while not blameless — are victims of circumstance.
Two of my favorites in the book were “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern” and “Fun with a Stranger.” Both stories take place in a school and show the potentially devastating relationship between a teacher and her students.
In “Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern,” a young teacher is confronted with a true challenge:
All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the gray-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the City of New York. A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline.
Miss Price is confident that she can help Young Vincent, who grew up in the slum, come into the fold with the suburban students. It’s hard enough that he speaks differently, but what’s worse is that he tries really hard to look disengaged while impressing the students with obvious lies about his past. This story is much more than that, however. With perfect Yates’s subtlety, we see beneath the text to the inner turmoil as Vincent and Miss Price develop a fragile relationship of trust.
“Fun with a Stranger” also focuses on a school room. Here, however, the misfit is the teacher herself. The students feel disappointed they have been assigned to her classroom, but their pride prevents them from admitting just how awful she is. Plus, there is a vulnerable side to Miss Snell that they sense, giving the students some faith in her.
Still, they could not hate Miss Snell, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own. “When we learn a new word it’s like making a friend,” she said once. “And we all like to make friends, don’t we? Now, for instance, when school began this year you were all strangers to me, but I wanted very much to learn your names and remember your faces, and so I made the effort. It was confusing at first, but before long I’d made friends with all of you. And later on we’ll have some good times together — oh, perhaps a little party at Christmastime, or something like that — and then I know I’d be very sorry if I hadn’t made that effort, because you can’t very well have fun with a stranger, can you?” She gave them a homely, shy smile. “And that’s just the way it is with words.”
The prospect of the Christmas party helps Miss Snell’s students forgive her shortcomings even though the other students make fun of them for having such a lame teacher. Again, what Yates pulls off with this story goes beyond the simple plot and delves into the characters’ relationships. I found this one particularly unique because the young students are realistically portrayed and yet they seem so much more mature and knowing than their pathetic teacher.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed this book as a whole, not all stories were equal. And it is apparent that Yates is just stretching his wings. Interestingly, I enjoyed his early stories the most because he seems to be writing more from the gut than from his mind. However, that all changes with the final story, “Builders.” When I got to it, it came as a breath of fresh air. His style was mature and yet still fresh, like his earlier stories and like Revolutionary Road. Also, it’s a bit metafictional:
Writers who write about writers can easily bring on the worst kind of literary miscarriage; everybody knows that. Start a story off with “Craig crushed out his cigarette and lunged for the typewriter,” and there isn’t an editor in the United States who’ll feel like reading your next sentence.
So don’t worry: this is going to be a straight, no-nonsense piece of fiction about a cab driver, a movie star, and an eminent child psychologist, and that’s a promise. But you’ll have to be patient for a minute, because there’s going to be a writer in it too. I won’t call him “Craig,” and I can guarantee that he won’t get away with being the only Sensitive Person among the characters, but we’re going to be struck with him right along and you’d better count on his being as awkward and obtrusive as writers nearly always are, in fiction or in life.
Well, at least some of them — Yates, of course — produce fascinating works for us to enjoy.