Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Review: "The Easter Parade" by Richard Yates
Finishing Richard Yates’ novel The Easter Parade in public was something of a mistake, because it has been a while since a book nearly moved me to tears. It didn’t just make me feel sad, or gloomy, but I felt my eyes welling up over the last 70 or so pages and had to take a few breaths before I could function properly. It is a testament to Yates as a writer, to his simple prose, unadorned but authentic, and the compassion he has for his characters, who are more like us than we’d like to admit, and face the cruel world Yates crafts with a surprising amount of dignity. Before I finished the novel, I read part of a long article on Yates written by writer Stewart O’Nan, which was written before Yates’ resurgence in the public eye and the release of the Sam Mendes adaption of Revolutionary Road. It gave me a bit more insight to the book I was reading. What sets Yates apart from a lot of his contemporaries from his rich period between the 60’s and 70’s, and what probably caused his slip into obscurity soon after his death, is not in his subject matter, which he shares with writers like Raymond Carver and John Cheever, but his brutal honesty completely free of any cool, hip cynicism or macho irony. Yates seems to weep for a better world. He wants it just as much as his characters do, and wonders where his and their happiness is, and whether it even exists, and is crushed when its search turns out to be a failure. We are told at the beginning that Sarah and Emily Grimes will not lead happy lives. Their parents are divorced, and they live between their idealistic yet defeated father and their aloof, prickly mother, who frets over how special each one is. They take different paths in lives, with Sarah, the older one, marrying early and pumping out a few kids. We only learn later on the extent of her personal problems. Emily, who is really the main character in this novel, starts out as the uglier sister, but loses her virginity in a passionless tryst in Central Park and always finds herself in relationships with men who are varying degrees of pitiful and worthless. Emily seems smart, at least smarter than her sister, but attracts the weakest kind of men, such as a self-obsessed jealous poet, a psych major who reveals his dark heart after a family gathering and the head of an ad agency who poorly hides his love for his younger ex-wife. Yates never spares us the horrid scenes of dysfunction, like the Grimes’ mother slip into dementia and circumstances of Sarah’s dysfunction, which leads her down a path of emotional ruin. But Yates handles it delicately and with great sincere sympathy that feels like a knife in the heart and a kind of warm empathetic hug. This is a powerful book with searing honesty from a writer whose resurgence has placed him among the greats of the 20th century.