Continuing with my aim of working my way through the canon of one of my favourite writers, I recently turned to Richard Yates’ third novel, Disturbing the Peace. Following its publication in 1975, critics considered the book to be something of a disappointment, possibly even his weakest. While it may not be as accomplished and as devastating as Revolutionary Road, or as subtle and as melancholic as The Easter Parade, Disturbing the Peace is still a very fine novel. It’s a brilliantly realised portrait of one man’s descent into the depths of total despair. Here’s how it opens:
Everything began to go wrong for Janice Wilder in the late summer of 1960. And the worst part, she always said afterwards, the awful part, was that it seemed to happen without warning. (pg. 1)
Janice is married to John Wilder, the central figure in Yates’ novel. At thirty-five, John finds himself stuck in a comfortable but utterly stifling middle-class existence in New York. Despite his success as a salesman, John doesn’t really enjoy his job selling advertising space in The American Scientist magazine. His marriage to Janice is comfortable but dull, so he plays around a bit; plus he is losing any real ability to connect with his only child, ten-year-old Tommy. In other words, he feels very frustrated with his life.
As the novel opens, John has just arrived back in NYC following a week-long business trip to Chicago. Unable to face the thought of returning home to Janice, John calls her from a hotel bar. It soon becomes clear that John has been drinking fairly heavily, and he is spoiling for a fight.
“Okay, here’s another thing. There was a girl in Chicago, little PR girl for one of the distilleries. I screwed her five times in the Palmer House. Whaddya think of that?”
It wasn’t the first news of its kind – there had been a good many girls – but it was the first time he’d ever flung it at her this way, like an adolescent braggart trying to shock his mother. She thought of saying What would you like me to think? but didn’t trust her voice: it might sound wounded, which would be a mistake, or it might sounds dry and tolerant and that would be worse. Luckily he didn’t wait long for an answer. (pgs. 2-3)
The remainder of the phone call leaves Janice feeling very concerned about John’s state of mind, so much so that she calls their close friend, Paul Borg, and asks him to go and talk to John at the Commodore – hopefully Paul will be able to sort things out, to talk to him man-to-man. When Paul arrives on the scene, John claims he is suffering from exhaustion brought on by a bad case of insomnia in Chicago. In reality, John is on the cusp of a nervous breakdown; he just doesn’t know it, or maybe he cannot admit that he needs help. When Paul persuades him to check into a hospital for some much-needed rest and recuperation, John ends up arguing with one of the doctors, an action that results in his transfer to the Men’s Violence Ward at Bellevue, a psychiatric unit which sounds more like a prison than a place of care. With it being Labour Day weekend, John ends up spending the best part of a week in Bellevue, an experience that is relayed in vivid and gruelling detail in the opening section of the novel.
When John is finally released from Bellevue, Janice arranges for the family to take a short break at their second home in the country. As with certain other family pleasures, John knows that expectations of the trip will almost certainly outweigh actual fulfilment. Janice gives it her best shot, playing the role of the concerned and devoted wife, talking away in an attempt to fill the silence. Meanwhile, John spends much of his time drinking bourbon, looking out of the window and gazing at pretty young girls as they dive into the nearby lake. At one point, he seems fit to burst with it all.
One good thing: there was plenty of bourbon on the kitchen shelf. As soon as he was dressed he got out the ice and made himself a double that was more like a triple.
“Feel like a drink?” he asked Janice.
“No thanks.” She was sitting on a tall kitchen stool in her slacks with a colander in her lap, snapping string beans for dinner, and didn’t look up. “It’s a little early, isn’t it?”
“Seems late enough to me.”
And not until he’d gone outdoors for the first few greedy swallows did he figure out why he was so angry. It wasn’t because of the girl on the raft (the hell with the girl on the raft), or because Janice had asked if it wasn’t a little early, or because her crisp little snap-snap of string beans had always been an irritating sound; it was because the stool she sat on, with her tennis shoes hooked over its middle rung, was exactly like the cop’s stool at the door in Bellevue. (pgs. 59-60)
This scene ends with John imagining just what he’d like to do with that stool, and it’s not a pretty picture.
As a condition of his release from Bellevue, John agrees to see a psychiatrist. At first, talking therapy seems to provide him with a brief release, a way of delving into the past, but it’s not long before he gets fed up with his physician. There is also the requirement to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but most of the time John’s heart isn’t in it, and he sneaks off for sly drinks immediately before and after each session.
Things start looking up for John when he begins an affair with Pamela Hendricks, an attractive, bright, young girl whom he meets through work. Everything is rosy for a year or so as Pamela seems to offer John some hope in life. The couple share a mutual love of movies, and, with the help of some of Pamela’s old college friends, they begin work on a film based on John’s stint in Bellevue. In time (and following a few developments I won’t go into here) John leaves Janice and moves to California with Pamela with the aim of finalising the movie and getting it into distribution.
The remainder of the novel charts John’s downward trajectory as everything around him unravels. Fuelled by an addiction to alcohol and tormented by his past failings, John systematically destroys pretty much everything that is bright and promising in his life; ultimately he sinks into a depression, one that makes his earlier breakdown seem mild by comparison. Interestingly, there is a direct parallel between John’s own life and that of the protagonist in the final version of the film (the one the producers consider to be more commercially viable than the inside story of Bellevue itself).
As with Yates’ other novels, Disturbing the Peace chips away at the façade that is The American Dream. In this scene, during a brief ‘second honeymoon’ period with Janice, John reflects on the sham of his marriage. It is all merely an act, and he wonders how long they can keep it up.
“We’re having Tommy’s favourite tonight,” she said when he was settled at the table. “My own very special meat loaf, baked potato with sour cream, and a simple tossed salad. It used to be one of your favourites too, John. Is it still?
“Sure is. Especially the meat loaf. You suppose I could have another slice?”
“Why, certainly kind sir,” she said. “I’m very flattered.
As the conversation continues in a similar vein, John comes to the following realisation:
Was this really happening? Was she sitting there forking meat loaf into her mouth and dabbing at her lips with a napkin, and was Tommy really there across the table? How could any family as unhappy as this put on such a show every night, and how long could it last? (pg. 149)
Yates is also very strong on the small disappointments in life: John’s frustration at his lack of height; the fact that he never learned to swim; an uneasy game of catch with Tommy that fails to satisfy both father and son. I love this description of a stole that John bought for Janice, a minor tragedy that seems to capture his feelings about the marriage itself.
That stole, too, was a heartbreaker. He had given it to her as a birthday present years ago, after seeing one just like it slung from the shoulders of a pretty girl at the office. But the girl at the office had known how to wear the thing, as a sort of elegant loose shawl, and Janice hadn’t. From the moment she’d rushed from her birthday celebration to pose with it at the hall mirror (“Oh, I love this, John…”) he knew she would never to wear it – it looped and dangled from her elbows like a rope – and every time she tried only made it worse. (pg 161)
Set as it is in the early 1960s, the novel also touches on the Kennedy phenomenon. John dislikes the Kennedys and everything they represent. When John F. Kennedy is shot dead in 1963, John Wilder realises he feels a degree of sympathy with the assassin. Kennedy had been too tall, too young, too good-looking and too damn successful; ‘he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse.’ Kennedy had been everything John Wilder knew he couldn’t be.
The period detail is wonderful, too. There is a scene where John’s boss takes him out for lunch, a long, languorous, martini-fuelled discussion that could have easily served as the template for one of Don Draper’s liquid lunches with Roger Sterling in Mad Men.
Disturbing the Peace is a more self-analytical novel than Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade. It is clear that Yates has drawn on his own experiences for inspiration here. There is a bitterness running through John’s narrative, and the ending, when it comes, is pretty bleak. Even so, it leaves me all the more eager to read more of this author’s work in the future; it’s just a question of deciding which one to read next.
Update: MarinaSofia has also reviewed this novel – click here to read her review.
Disturbing the Peace is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.