Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

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.

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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.

42 thoughts on “Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

  1. lonesomereadereric

    I’ve read a few books by Yates but don’t believe I’ve heard of this one. Sounds like the themes are consistent with his other books but perhaps this novel was more personal. His writing is excellent and I love the period atmosphere too. That is a great quote about the stole!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Isn’t it just! Even though my review was already getting very long, I couldn’t resist including that quote as it just seemed to capture John’s sense of disappointment with his marriage. Disturbing has a lower profile than some of his other books (I guess Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness are the big hitters), but it’s still worth reading. He was such a talented writer – I doubt he had a bad book in him.

      Reply
  2. Caroline

    I recognize a lot of the elements I encountered in his other work in your review. The opening sentence is so typically Yates. I think I’ll read his other books first but I could imagine picking this one up as well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, he’s definitely riffing on very similar themes in all of these books. And I know what you mean about the opening sentence – it’s so reminiscent of the starting point for The Easter Parade: ‘Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce.’ Right from the start you know it’s all going to go wrong. There’s more bitterness here compared to The Easter Parade, more anger and active destruction of the relationships.

      Reply
  3. Jonathan

    I realise from your post that this is one I have read. As always it’s bleak but satisfying. I aim to read more Yates.

    I really must post my review of ‘The Easter Parade’.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, this one is very bleak, right from that early section in Bellevue. Even so, I agree – there’s something very satisfying about these novels. I guess much of it stems from the characterisation, but the attention to detail helps as well – all the little comments and gestures that seem to speak volumes. I’ll be very interested to read your take on The Easter Parade – useful to know it’s coming up.

      Reply
  4. susanosborne55

    This puts me in mind of Janice Galloway’s harrowing The Trick is to Keep Breathing which I’m about to finish – it’s also in the excellent Vintage Classics series. It’s written from the point of view of a woman in the grips of a breakdown and takes the form of a fractured narrative. Extraordinarily effective.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting, Susan. I’ve never read anything by Galloway – I know the name but she’s not a writer I’m terribly familiar with. Are you planning to review it?

      Reply
      1. susanosborne55

        I’m giving it a mention in my monthly roundup rather than a full review. I think I’ll add the Yates to my list but won’t be reading it for a little while – a little too bleak after the Galloway.

        Reply
  5. MarinaSofia

    I tried to leave a comment, but it’s been utter hell with my internet connection – even when I’ve taken my laptop to a cafe! I’m beginning to think someone is cursing my online presence…
    I rather liked this book, even if it maybe doesn’t reach the heights of some of Richard Yates’ other creations (high bar, though!) – a perfect description of the downward spiral… And he somehow manages to make his male characters, in spite of all their weakness, bullying ways, drunkenness etc. somehow inspire pity and sympathy instead of utter contempt.
    And you are very brave for tackling his full canon – you must have nerves of steel (and a good sense of pacing yourself).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks for persisting, Marina. And I hope you get your connection sorted soon – must be very frustrating. I knew I’d seen another review of this but couldn’t remember where! Apologies – I’ll add a link right to yours as soon as poss. It’s interesting isn’t it, Yates’ ability to make these men seem human somehow in spite of their deplorable behaviour. I couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for John too. Plus Janice didn’t know how to deal with him which simply added to his frustration. Not that I’m saying any of this was her fault – it’s just that the two of them had very different views of married life (or life in general).

      As for reading the whole set, there aren’t too many of them – just seven novels plus the stories. I should be fine as long as I leave a little breathing space between each ‘dose’. Maybe one every six months or so. :-)

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    I have wanted to read Yates for a while. I would likely begin with one of his more acclaimed books.

    His criticism of certain aspects of America sound fascinating to me. I can see how the Kennedy Phenomena would be ripe for such a writer.

    Outstanding commentary as always Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. He is definitely worthy of some of your reading time. Good idea to start with one of his more acclaimed books. For you, I would recommend either The Easter Parade or Revolutionary Road (probably the latter as I suspect you might find it the more interesting of the two).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s definitely bleaker than The Easter Parade – still worth reading, though. That said, I would recommend Revolutionary Road ahead of this if you were looking to try another at some point.

      Reply
  7. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always Jacqui. I didn’t *get* Yates when I read him years ago, but sounds like I really should give him another go!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Maybe it wasn’t the right time for you when you tried him before? Was it a long time ago or more recently, around the time of the Vintage reissues perhaps? I can think of several writers I’m enjoying now that I probably wouldn’t have clicked with say twenty years ago. Which Yates did you try? I wouldn’t recommend Disturbing as a suitable entry point, but either Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade would be fine if you were minded to give him another go.

      Reply
      1. kaggsysbookishramblings

        I had both Revolutionary Road and Easter Parade – but this could have been anything up to 20 years ago when I had small children and I think my reading and understanding capacity was a bit reduced back then because of the commitment to the offspring…. :)

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely worth a look Madame bibi. Even though this is not his best, it’s still very good – there are some standout scenes here.

      Reply
  8. 1streading

    I’ve not regretted reading any of Yates’ novels, so I’m glad you enjoyed this (well, perhaps ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the best word). Given their bleakness you do have to space them out though!
    I’d also echo the recommendation for The Trick is to Keep Breathing, which is an excellent novel.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Glad to hear it, Grant, as I’ve still got four of his novels to come (plus the stories, of course). I’m thinking one very six months or so – that should be fine. And thanks for echoing the recommendation of the Galloway – I’ll take a look at it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. It is perhaps a little uneven compared to The Easter Parade and Revolutionary Road — but as Marina commented above, they represent a very high bar! I would be curious to hear what you think of this one.

      Reply
  9. bookbii

    You always write such thoughtful reviews Jacqui, and this one is definitely thoughtful. I’ve never quite felts at home with Yates, perhaps it’s that ‘chipping away at the American Dream’ you mention so insightfully in your review, but I find his work a little harsh. I suspect I would find this one harsh too, but your review suggests it is also a rewarding read. Maybe one day. Great review, as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. This is definitely the harshest of the three I’ve read so far as there’s so much bitterness here. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that Yates is hacking away at the American Dream rather than chipping away, certainly in this one! I can totally appreciate where you’re coming from in finding his work somewhat harsh as his characters don’t tend to fare well in life. Have you read The Easter Parade? If not, I would be tempted to suggest you try it if you were ever looking to give him another go (not that I’m urging you to). It’s a little different both to Disturbing and to Rev Road. Parade is quieter and more melancholy – it’s probably my favourite of the three I’ve read to date.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        I’d be willing to give Easter Parade a go, thanks Jacqui. I tried Revolutionary Road and just couldn’t make friends with it (or the movie, which was good but just so angry). Hacking is a good term, yes!

        Reply
  10. Alice

    I do so love that you’re working your way through Yates’ work, it brings back such great memories. I remember this book being a slow started, but coming with such wonderful rewards. The ending was so bleak, so Yates.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He’s on my notional list of writers to explore in depth – and as his oeuvre is quite manageable there’s no excuse for me not read them all! Yes, the section in Bellevue was tough going, but it definitely picked up after that. Glad to hear my post revived a few memories for you, Alice. Some standout scenes here – Yates really nails that feeling of bitterness.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this one, Seamus. It is perhaps a little more uneven than either Rev Road or The Easter Parade, but there are flashes of brilliance here. When Yates hits his stride he’s pretty hard to beat. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

      Reply
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  13. Emma

    I have Easter Parade in head before this one. I like the quotes and the style.

    I’m not sure I’d be able to stomach John’s angst. Poor Janice, I want to say.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, good plan. Easter Parade is superb, plus it’s Joan Didion’s favourite Yates and one can’t argue with that! John would be hell to live with that’s for sure. He’s like a character from a Cheever story, all washed up and wallowing in a spiral of self pity and despair.

      Reply
  14. Max Cairnduff

    Thanks for flagging this to me Jacqui. Easter Parade sounds stronger, but I may read this first so I have that to build to. The bitterness must make it tough going, and like Emma my heart rather goes out to Janice but then it sounds that to a degree the book’s does too.

    Quality stuff. Do you think you’ll ever read The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit? Not as good as Yates I understand but a major hit in the period.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Good plan. The Easter Parade is my fave of the three Yates novels I’ve read so it’s worth keeping in reserve. I might do the same by saving Cold Spring Harbour, another of his best as far as I understand. Maybe I’ll read A Good School next, or possibly some of the short stories.

      The bitterness is very dominant here, especially as John slips into a downward spiral in the second half of the book. It’s a warts-and-all portrait with all his failings and prejudices to the fore. I did feel for Janice though. You’re right, Yates is relatively sympathetic towards her. She’s very sweet really, and her heart’s in the right place even if she does wind John up quite a lot of the time – unintentionally, of course.

      Yes, I would like to read the Sloan. Actually I’m glad you mentioned it again as I thought I’d put it on a wishlist at some point last year. Obviously not – never mind, it’s there now! Is it in your TBR pile?

      Reply
      1. Max Cairnduff

        The Sloan isn’t. I understand the second half is much weaker than the first. If you find it very interesting it might get there, but presently it seems perhaps more of historical than literary interest.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, that’s interesting. I’ll see how I fare, then. I would like to read it sometime, but it’s a question of when. Yates’ other books are a higher priority for me, but I might try to slip it in along the way.

          Reply
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