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Richard Yates: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

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 (1962), 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.  Indeed, 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 devestating 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 metaphysical:

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.

10 thoughts on “Richard Yates: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness

  1. KevinfromCanada says:

    I’ve ordered this (actually cheated — ordered the complete short stories in what looks like quite a nice St. Marten’s volume) and noticed that Richard Russo wrote the intro for the volume I ordered. And I see no reviews for Russo on your site when I search, so I’m suggesting you consider him.

    All his work that I have read (which I think is everything but his short stories) is set in upstate New York, so it isn’t far from your neck of the continent. Empire Falls won the Pulitzer, The Bridge of Sighs is the most recent. I would have a tough time choosing between those two — EF is probably the better written, for me Bridge of Sighs has a better story. And I have enjoyed all the other novels, although they are less complicated than these two. Put Russo down for a future read — like Yates, once you read one, I’m pretty sure you’ll want to keep on going.

    I’ll comment on this most interesting review once the book has arrived and I have read it. Keep up the good work.

  2. Thanks, Kevin. Russo’s Empire Falls is one of those books that I’ve picked up from the bookstore’s shelf many times only to put it back thinking I’ll get to it soon. I’m sure I’ll get to it even sooner now with your recommendation. After all, the same thing has been going on with Gilead and I finally bought that one a week ago.

    I’m anxious for your thoughts on Yates’s short stories. While there are similarities with Revolutionary Road, it was not close to the same experience for me. That said, it was still a good experience.

  3. John Self says:

    Now this is interesting, Kevin. We all have our prejudices – where they come from we don’t know – and I’m afraid that I had, with no evidence whatever, pegged Russo down as ‘not for me’. For some reason I think of him as a poor man’s John Irving (and if some of Irving’s recent output is anything to go by, that’s poor indeed) – a sort of widescreen sentimentalist.

    Shall I take it from your comments that I’m going to have to rethink this unthinking view?

  4. KevinfromCanada says:

    John: I do quite like Russo but will admit that is more because of the geography and society where he locates his books than the writing itself. I wouldn’t compare him Irving who, at least in his better books, focuses more on his characters, with the world they live in serving more as a context. Russo on the other hand explores what the economic decline (mainly of small town, upstate New York, although Empire Falls moves into New England, where he lives) means to the people who live there and have no real chance of escape. I’m not sure how relevant he would be to you — to me he captures a part of North American experience that is worth the effort. He is not a “great” but for me is well worth exploring. I would not call him sentimental, neither would I say he is dramatic.

  5. zhiv says:

    I read somewhere–no idea exactly where–that Russo is working on a screenplay based on three of Yates’ stories. No idea what the stories are either. Easter Parade has been in development as a movie for some time. In the introduction, as in Richard Ford’s intro to RevRoad, you get a clear sense of that “writer’s writer” thing that you often hear with Yates. They read his work back in the 60s and 70s, and it was very influential in their approach to writing fiction.

    I read a couple of Russo’s early books, but haven’t looked at or thought about reading his books for a long time now.

  6. zhiv says:

    Not that this comment thread should be about Richard Russo. I like your points about the two school stories and Builders very much, and Builders seems to mark an obvious breakthrough to more mature work. But you leave out the middle, it seems, and a lot of very interesting stuff, male-female relationships that prefigure RevRoad, the one about the wife’s infidelity as she visits her husband in the TB ward, the weird, building, violent, impotent rage in the B.A.R. man. And I really like Jazz Piano, which seems to be Yates’ most Fitzgerald-Hemingway story, the type of thing that Frank Wheeler would have wanted to try to capture if he and April had made it to Europe. There’s an echo of the relationship of Frank and Shep there, as I recall, with interesting issues of artistic appreciation and race, and the ugly American dilettante and aesthete. Jack O’Lantern is a great introductory story, and “Fun” is a great character study–I haven’t thought much about the stories here “prefiguring” RevRoad, but isn’t Miss Snell a bit like Mrs. Givens? When you get to the biography, you’ll enjoy reading about Yates writing the stories and working at his craft in Europe, and struggling to find a story big enough to write out as a novel.

  7. Thanks for filling in the middle, zhiv. I can never get everything I mean to in these posts – that is even if I manage to catch things in the first place.

    That makes these comments the perfect place to fill in gaps (the many) as well as get different perspectives.

    As for Miss Snell being like Mrs. Givens, I don’t think so. They may be similarly pathetic and similarly unlikeable, but I think the reasons are very different. Miss Snell is a perfectionist when it comes to self-denial, and she expects that of her students. She’s trying to teach industry and it’s costing a lot. Mrs. Givens, on the other hand, was at least a bit personable as she attempted to manage relationships. Neither are flattering women.

    I definitely look forward to reading the biography. I checked it out a few weeks ago only to return it unread. I decided I might go through the novels first, which means it will be a while before I get to the bio!

  8. KevinfromCanada says:

    I took a break from Shadow Country today and read Eleven Kinds of Loneliness — and what a wonderful break it was. Yes, these stories may have come from early in his career but they certainly indicate a brilliant writer. My comparison would probably be Salinger, who I think used the Glass family stories in a similar way to explore the America of his time — which is actually only a few years on. Builders would probably be my favorite, but that might just be a reflection of my mood as I read them (it is particularly interesting to be reading this on Election Day, waiting to watch the cable channel for what I hope is the most hopeful American election result since I was a teenager). I did like every single story and can’t wait to go back for a more careful read. I can’t thank you enough, Trevor, for putting me onto Yates — I would never have picked him up without your initial review and now I have already read two wonderful volumes. Thanks again.

  9. I’m glad you liked this one so much, Kevin! And I’m likewise sure you enjoyed the elections from last night!

    By the way, I’m very anxious for your views on Shadow Country, a book I haven’t gotten my hands on yet and don’t feel I have the time to tackle between now and when the National Book Award is announced.

  10. KevinfromCanada says:

    I was very heartened by the election results — it is nice to have the USA back in the world community. And I certainly salute the American black community for this achievement.

    As for Shadow Country, it is proving to be a difficult sled — I’m almost halfway through book two so I am approaching the halfway point. There is no doubt that it is a signficant book but the writing is dense and plot development is very complex. I’ll also say that the Florida Gulf Coast and Everglades are about as far from my experience as you can get, so I don’t bring a lot of local knowledge to the reading, which makes it even more difficult. I could see it winning, mainly on the basis of the author’s very lofty goals in attempting it, but wouldn’t advise you to put everything else aside to read it before the announcement. I’ll post more detailed comments on the NBA site when I finish it. I am glad I took the break yesterday and will probably take another one along the way.

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