Sunday, January 15, 2017

Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates

In Richard Yates' penultimate novel "Young Hearts Crying" (1984) he revisits the fifties setting of his debut "Revolutionary Road" - the novel that brought him back into attention, and to print a few years ago, and was subsequently made into a film. In "Young Hearts Crying" Michael Davenport is an attractive, intelligent Harvard graduate, who has previously made his grade as an Airforce gunner in the tail end of the war. Davenport had a good war, and in a sense this backstory is given only as a rite of passage, but surely informs his psychology . He wants to be a published poet, but perhaps more importantly, wants girls. This is a pre-sexual revolution 1950s, and though the trappings of genteel moral codes are being stripped away, he is no Burroughsian transgressor, and falls for the first beautiful girl he finds, Lucy, a blank slate on which he can impress his longings. In turn, she is an heiress - though she hides this from Michael - who is wanting to escape from the stultifying conformities that her class and riches could bring her.

This is the America of opportunity after all - Madmen territory - but where some of the certainties that informed the Jazz age writers have disappeared. In some ways, Michael and Lucy, are less Gatsby and Carraway, and more this decades' "careless people". Art, and culture becomes the route into some kind of self-awareness, or escape. Yet, with so little jeopary in their life, this becomes - like in "Revolutionary Road" - a route only into the kind of bourgeois life they've both, in their different ways, been trying to escape. Between Fitzgerald and Franzen, their chronicler is Yates. Davenport is a complex character. Bundled into a marriage he didn't expect, his ambition outweights his talent. The short plays that were lauded at Harvard impress on him that he'll become a writer, but he supplements this, in lieu of using Lucy's money, with a copywriter job for a trade magazine. Here, in New York, him and Lucy are at the beginning of their lives - but whereas in, say, Jay McInerney, there would be the sense of an upward trajectory, Yates is the chronicler of a certain nuanced disappointment - a jaded American dream that being for "everyone", can never deliver on its promises beyond the mundane.

The Davenports have a child and move from their small flat to a pleasant suburb and Michael catches the train in every day where he meets the amiable Irish painter, Tom Nelson, whose popular canvasses are far away from the becoming fashionable "abstract expressionists." Yates is briliant at sidestepping the cliches and expectations of a novel of artists, by concentrating on these figures that will be marginalised by history one way or another. Tom has been born poor and so is exaltant in the money his popular work gives him, whilst Michael is the epitome of the minor poet, a forgotten name published by a small press rather than a public poet like Robert Lowell or a beatnik such as Ginsberg. That's not to say that Yates ignores the bohemian scene - for his other friend is an abstract expressionist painter, whose sister is a lifelong unconsummated desire for the frivolous Michael.

Around a series of carefully constructed scenes, we rediscover various characters - and introduce new ones - through a thirty year period. Still ignoring Lucy's inheritance, the Davenports move to a tiny house in the countryside near the Nelsons. Here - on an estate which is run by a group of old style theatrical types - Michael's ambition and self-loathing become more apparent as they contribute to his failing marriage. He is vicious about the gay characters hiding out here (one actor is a famous character actor who is blacklisted by McCarthy) calling the place a "fruit farm." His lack of sympathy is in itself what gives us sympathy for him as such a flawed character. His own plays get unperformed, and his poetry becomes safe and mediocre, each book receiving less attention for the first - where the long poem that concludes the book slowly becomes an American classic, and one he can never quite repeat. When the end comes for him and Lucy its no surprise, but its victim is less Lucy and their child, than Michael himself. This man-child, who is proud of his brief boxing near success in the air force, constantly wants to prove he is the better man. He is that overbearing alpha of American literature, yet whereas in Mailer or Heller, the man would become a successful bully, Yates is brilliant at creating characters who are far from predictable, whose flaws and strengths are balanced in them. Back in New York, away from his wife, he finally has a breakdown and ends up incarcerated, the heavy drinking causing him to have a number of psychotic episodes. These - almost always off stage in the novel - see him become drunk, and obnoxious and having to prove he is the best man in the room. His lack of social empathy turns out to be his great character flaw, his self-love and self-loathing combining to create a somewhat tragic character.

Yet the book is much more than that. Structurally, its surprising and elegant. The first "book" sees Michael and Lucy's life; the second follows hers after the split; and the third follows his. Lucy - freed from Michael still doesn't have an interest in the destiny of her class, money, marriage, kids, and instead she throws herself into different artistic pursuits - trying her hand as an actress, a short story writer, and eventually, an amatuer painter. We see now that her need for Michael was based upon this. Both of them seek out creative and artistic life like moths to a flame, but raw ambition on his part, and naked desire on hers, they never quite achieve what they are looking for. She finds solace in therapy, him in drink. At the same time, its now the sixties and both embark on endless affairs. For Lucy they are always sexual - her money enabling her to just throw herself in with some man and not be afraid of leaving. For Michael, he needs to be looked after, to have an adoring sexual partner. As their daughter grows up she becomes more withdrawn, and joins the hippies in California to her mother's chagrin. 

As Michael makes it into his fifties, now a lecturer at a small rural college, married to a much younger careers counsellor, he should be contented but is further away than ever. He frets over unfulfilled sexual relationships, and over the flawed male friendships he's had over the years. He finds a job back where he grew up, near Boston, and is suddenly overwhelmed when his new boss - much younger than himself - highly praises his signature poem. Meanwhile Lucy has given up her fortune and by the 1970s has thrown herself into good works for Amnesty International, probably the sort of work that a rich, educated woman of her class would have always done, had she not chased the chimera of artistic happiness.

Like all great novels - and I believe it is a great novel - its much harder to "review" than those that are more flawed, for it it the meticulousness, as well as the quality of the writing, which makes it such a compelling read. How much of the novel is autobiographical? Probably quite a lot - as Davenport is Yates's age - but he's created characters who are dialled down, rather than dialled up (Yates was briefly a speechwriter for Robert Kennedy), far from the bright lights of fame and the compelling history of mid-late 20th century American history. Like "Stoner" or the short stories of Andre Dubus, this more prosaic world is in itself compelling; for when he pulls back the curtain, Yates looks in and beyond suburban America and its inhabitants and teases out the secrets that they keep even from themselves. It's a wonderful novel.

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