After reading Revolutionary Road, I quickly ordered The Collected Stories of Richard Yates to read his short fiction. I’ve just read the first section of the book, which contains the stories originally published in a collection appropriately titled Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.
There’s several remarkable stories in this collection, many that cover the same themes and territory in Revolutionary Road. In The Best of Everything, a bride-to-be prepares for a romantic night with the man she is planning to marry the next day, but when he shows up, and then leaves abruptly, she realizes she has made a terrible mistake. In A Glutton For Punishment, a husband tries to conceal the fact that he has been fired from his job, but finds he cannot keep the secret from his wily wife. The B.A.R. Man recounts the anger of a man who has a growing understanding that his life has amounted to nothing, and how he responds with a sudden act of violence.
Two of the stories center around people in a TB Hospital, and Yates uses the transient setting of these hospital wards very effectively to portray loneliness from different angles, so I wanted to focus in on these two stories more in-depth. They are my two favorite stories from the collection.
No Pain Whatsoever
Mira is given a ride by some friends to visit her husband, who has been in a TB Hospital for the past four years. As they head to the hospital on a Sunday afternoon, Mira is in the back seat with a boyfriend who is playfully groping her, and she feels this is inappropriate because of where they are heading. The three friends drop her off, and she has a visit with her ailing husband. At one point, when asked how he is feeling, the husband replies that as long as he doesn’t move his arms above his head, he has “no pain whatsoever.” During the visit, she realizes her husband is more interested in the magazines she brought him than in her. Afterwards, as she is outside waiting for her ride to return, she has a moment of intense sobbing, only cleaning herself up as the car arrives. She climbs into the back of the car and her friends tell her they found a little roadhouse, with cheap beer, and they want to take her there. Mira’s boyfriend, already a bit drunk, starts kissing her, and she allows him to fondle her this time, urging him to just have one drink so they can rush back home.
The story is so simple, sad and beautiful. A basic three act story that whispers in the reader’s ear. There is so much unsaid in the story, but Mira’s desperation comes through so vividly in her moment of pain while waiting for her ride, and her subsequent words in the back seat of the car. This story nearly broke my heart.
Out With The Old
In this story, “Mac” is laid up in the TB ward as he has been for years. The story is set on New Year’s Eve, when his ward buddies want him to join in on a skit at midnight by dressing as an old man to represent the past year. One of the other patients will be dressed like a baby, representing the new year. Mac has been trying to write a letter the entire week, ever since he returned from a one night trip home for Christmas. During the story, we learn what had transpired at home. Because he has been hospitalized for so long, Mac has become a stranger to his family. On Christmas day, he studied his eighteen year old daughter Jean, and was surprised to see she had transformed into a woman – “the kind of withdrawn, obliquely smiling woman that had filled him with intolerable shyness and desire in his youth.” Moments later, he realized his family was on edge because of his presence in the house, that they were withholding a secret. He grew agitated and persisted until Jean ran out of the room upset. At this point, his wife explained that Jean was four months pregnant and she had refused to tell anyone who the father was. Having returned to the TB ward, we read a few variations of the letter Mac is trying to write, but he can’t put his emotions into words. He finally agrees to play the old man for the skit, signifying his acceptance that he is out with the old.
The interplay of the family on Christmas Day is written beautifully. The absence of this father was caused by illness, but the loneliness he feels is shared by many fathers who lose that close contact for a variety of reasons. A really touching story.
I also have to recommend the final story, Builders, which recounts a young writer being asked to write stories for a small price, and what he learned from it. If you are a writer, don’t skip this one.
After hearing about Richard Yates over the past few years, I’m excited to be reading his work. His stark portrayals in this collection are worthy of your time. I’m looking forward to reading the next section of the Collected Stories, which has the stories from his collection “Liars in Love.”