That it was all but forgotten prior to the release of its 2008 film is a shame. Literary critic Alfred Kazin wrote that it “locates the new American tragedy squarely on the field of marriage.”
Anybody who has ever been in a relationship finds themselves nodding page after page through the book, so accurately did Yates nail the ebb and flow of frustrations and outbursts.
In this article, I’ll look at a different story by him that showcases the efficiency with which Yates conveyed personality.
In The Collected Stories of Richard Yates you’ll find “Fun with a Stranger,” about an elementary school teacher who never understands how to connect with her students.
Miss Snell is strict, unappealing, and clueless, and her classroom is located across the hall from the charismatic Mrs. Cleary. The kids entering third grade get either the long end of the stick and a pleasant year with Mrs. Cleary, or the short end and a dreary slog through Snell hell.
In the following three excerpts, notice the deftness with which Yates contrasts the two teachers, and how easily we grasp their opposing personalities:
All that summer the children who were due to start third grade under Miss Snell had been warned about her. “Boy, you’re gonna get it,” the older children would say, distorting their faces with a wicked pleasure.
What I like about this opening is that we already have a bead on Snell without any direct description of her. Yates didn’t begin with, “Miss Snell was a real pill, yelling at her students all day long, smacking them with rulers…” and so on. Instead, our mind starts filling in what we think would make the kids hate a third-grade teacher. Yates enlists our imaginations to do the work. Once he gets the reader’s imagination on his side, the story becomes a team effort.
Later, the details come, along with consequences:
It was not uncommon to cry in Miss Snell’s class, even among the boys. And ironically, it always seemed to be during the lull after one of these scenes—when the only sound in the room was somebody’s slow, half-stifled sobbing, and the rest of the class stared straight ahead in an agony of embarrassment—that the noise of group laughter would float in from Mrs. Cleary’s class across the hall.
Could this contrast get any clearer?
I feel myself sitting in Snell’s class, already going cynical in my third-grade brain. “Of course I ended up here,” I’m thinking.
One more, to leave no doubt about which class you’d hope to join:
…the field trip itself only emphasized the difference between the two teachers. Mrs. Cleary ran everything with charm and enthusiasm; she was young and lithe and just about the prettiest woman Miss Snell’s class had ever seen. It was she who arranged for the children to climb up and inspect the cab of a huge locomotive that stood idle on a siding, and she who found out where the public toilets were. The most tedious facts about trains came alive when she explained them; the most forbidding engineers and switchmen became jovial hosts when she smiled up at them, with her long hair blowing and her hands plunged jauntily in the pockets of her polo coat.
Through it all Miss Snell hung in the background, gaunt and sour, her shoulders hunched against the wind and her squinted eyes roving, alert for stragglers. At one point she made Mrs. Cleary wait while she called her own class aside and announced that there would be no more field trips if they couldn’t learn to stay together in a group.
I’ll take Mrs. Cleary’s class, please.
From these excerpts alone, do you find yourself wondering where this is all going?
You probably wonder whether some hidden beauty is going to arise from Snell, or Cleary will prove to be a closeted witch. Will the kids in Snell’s class discover some abiding wisdom that the play babies in Cleary’s will not? There must be some point to this stark contrast.
That’s part of the mastery at work.
Yates demonstrated that it doesn’t take a cheesy “what was that sound in the garage” kind of suspense to keep readers hooked. Clear descriptions of interesting characters make us wonder why we’re meeting them, and curious to know what will happen to them. That keeps pages turning.
Bravo again, Mr. Yates.
The Collected Stories of Richard Yates
An Excellent Article:The Lost World of Richard Yates
by Stewart O’Nan
A look at why Yates went out of print. O’Nan sounds a cautionary note for writers who labor under the delusion that quality must win out in the end. Preview:
To write so well and then to be forgotten is a terrifying legacy. I always think that if I write well enough, the people in my books–the world of those books–will somehow survive. In time the shoddy and trendy work will fall away and the good books will rise to the top. It’s not reputation that matters, since reputations are regularly pumped up by self-serving agents and publicists and booksellers, by the star machinery of Random House and the New Yorker; what matters is what the author has achieved in the work, on the page. Once it’s between covers, they can’t take it away from you; they have to acknowledge its worth. As a writer, I have to believe that.
This is the mystery of Richard Yates: how did a writer so well-respected–even loved–by his peers, a writer capable of moving his readers so deeply, fall for all intents out of print, and so quickly?
Kent Lacey · December 16, 2021 at 2:01 am
Thanks for the heads-up on Yates. I look forward to adding his stories to my future reading list. I am only just into the 200 pages of your novel, Nakedness Happens. This time of the year it seems I have little free time to read with honey-do projects, wrapping up year-end in my trading efforts, and other duties. Pls continue to share more good authors. Thank you.
Jason Scott Kelly · December 16, 2021 at 9:45 am
My pleasure, Kent, and thank you for reporting progress through the first 200 pages of Nakedness!
You can’t go wrong with Yates. He should command a bigger profile in American literary history. I recommend starting with Revolutionary Road, one of the most realistic looks at how hard it is to escape mediocrity, even when we’re expert at identifying it in action all around ourselves. More than we think, we’re part of the herd, like it or not.
Have a merry Christmas!
Mark Johnson · December 17, 2021 at 11:21 pm
Hello Jason! Thank you for the interesting article on Richard Yates, I haven’t had a chance to read any of his work. I will put it on my list for 2022!
Jason Scott Kelly · December 18, 2021 at 5:52 am
My pleasure, Mark!
You’ll love Yates. Nobody has better captured the dull pain of striving without reward. His characters don’t fail in pursuit of big life dreams, but small ones, which makes their quiet desperation all the more heartbreaking.
He’s not a “happily ever after” writer, but if you want superb descriptions of the human condition, Yates is your man.