Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

Back in 2015, Richard Yates made my end-of-year highlights with The Easter Parade, a beautiful yet sad novel about the Grimes sisters and the different paths they take in life. There’s a good chance he’ll be on my list again in 2017, this time with Eleven Kinds of Loneliness (1962), a peerless collection of stories as good as any I’ve read in recent years. Yates’ canvases may be small and intimate, but the emotions he explores are universal. Here are the frustrations and disappointments of day-to-day life, the loneliness that stems from rejection, uncertainty or a deep feeling of worthlessness (there are other reasons too, which I’ll try to touch on later). As with other collections I’ve reviewed, I’m not going to try to cover each story in turn. My aim instead is to give a flavour of the themes and a little of what I thought of the volume as a whole.

yates-lonely

In The Best of Everything, one of my favourite pieces in the collection, we meet Grace, a young woman on the brink of marrying her fiancé, Ralph. As she finishes up her work on the Friday before the wedding, Grace reflects on her situation as the doubts begin to run through her mind. Maybe her roommate, Martha, was right after all; maybe she is settling for second best.

She had been calling him “darling” for only a short time—since it had become irrevocably clear that she was, after all, going to marry him—and the word still had an alien sound. As she straightened the stacks of stationary in her desk (because there was nothing else to do), a familiar little panic gripped her: she couldn’t marry him—she hardly even knew him. Sometimes it occurred to her differently, that she couldn’t marry him because she knew him too well, and either way it left her badly shaken, vulnerable to all the things that Martha, her roommate, had said from the very beginning. (p. 23)

When she discovers that her roommate is going away for the night, Grace plans a surprise for Ralph, a pre-marital treat that doesn’t quite go to plan. Instead, Grace gets a glimpse of what life may hold for her once she is married: the need to carefully manage the dynamic between husband and wife.

A Glutton for Punishment features a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. Walter, a graceful and gracious loser all his life, is convinced he is about to be fired from his job. In spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis.

And lately, when he started coming home with a beaten look and announcing darkly that he doubted if he could hold on much longer, she would enjoin the children not to bother him (“Daddy’s very tired tonight”), bring him a drink and soothe him with careful, wifely reassurance, doing her best to conceal her fear, never guessing, or at least never showing, that she was dealing with a chronic, compulsive failure, a strange little boy in love with the attitudes of collapse. (pp. 73-4)

This is a wonderful story, one that touches on the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a wife and mother was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt, irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be.

This bright cocktail mood was a carefully studied effect, he knew. So was her motherly sternness over the children’s supper; so was the brisk, no-nonsense efficiency with which, earlier today, she had attacked the supermarket; and so, later tonight, would be the tenderness of her surrender in his arms. The orderly rotation of many careful moods was her life, or rather, was what her life had become. She managed it well, and it was only rarely, looking very closely at her face, that he could see how much the effort was costing her. (p. 85)

Yates is particularly good when it comes to depicting the loneliness one often experiences in childhood, the challenges and difficulties associated with our schooldays. In Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern, we meet Vincent Sabella, a somewhat coarse boy who also happens to be the new kid in class.

The girls decided that he wasn’t very nice and turned away, but the boys lingered in their scrutiny, looking him up and down with faint smiles. This was the kind of kid they were accustomed to thinking of as “tough,” the kind whose stares had made all of them uncomfortable at one time or another in unfamiliar neighborhoods; here was a unique chance for retaliation. (p. 2)

While Miss Price, the fourth-grade teacher, does her best to make Vincent feel welcome, none of the children in the class seem willing to make an effort. As a consequence, Vincent spends virtually all of his breaks alone, desperately trying to kill time. When Miss Pryce tries to befriend Vincent, things don’t go as smoothly as expected. What follows is a sequence of events that highlights how loneliness can come about as a direct consequence of our own behaviour towards others, the actions we take when our frustrations bubble up to the surface.

Fun with a Stranger explores a different type of experience at school – that of being saddled with a ghastly teacher, in this case, a ‘big rawboned woman’ named Miss Snell. In direct contrast to her counterpart, the warm and engaging Mrs Cleary (the teacher who takes the other half of third grade), Miss Snell is strict and lacking in humour, forever pulling up the children for mumbling, daydreaming, frequent trips to the toilet, and, worst of all, for ‘coming to school without proper supplies’.

She never seemed to lose her temper, but it would almost have been better if she did, for it was the flat, dry, passionless redundance of her scolding that got everybody down. When Miss Snell singled someone out for a special upbraiding it was an ordeal by talk. She would come up to within a foot of her victim’s face, her eyes would stare unblinkingly into his, and the wrinkled gray flesh of her mouth would labor to pronounce his guilt, grimly and deliberately, until all the color faded from the day. (p. 107)

As this story unfolds, we see the impact of Miss Snell’s approach on the morale of her half of the intake – and how this compares to Mrs Cleary’s. There are times when the children are embarrassed by Miss Snell’s failure to show any enthusiasm or inspiration, especially when the two classes come together for a field trip. As Christmas approaches, the children hope that Miss Snell won’t let them down. Will she be able to match her colleague’s plans for a festive party? You’ll have to read this excellent story for yourselves to find out.

Two of the stories are set in hospitals, in TB wards to be precise. No Pain Whatsoever gives us a glimpse into the life of Myra, a woman who has been visiting her husband in hospital every Sunday for the past four years. This is a poignant story of an individual trapped in a stagnant marriage, isolated from her spouse both physically and emotionally. However, unbeknownst to her husband, Myra has found comfort in the form of another man.

Continuing the theme of illness, Out With the Old takes place in a Veterans hospital on New Year’s Eve, just a few days after most of the TB patients have returned to their ward after being allowed home for Christmas. Yates really captures the loneliness and loss of identity experienced by some of these patients when they come back to the hospital, a place where they must all dress alike in standard issue pyjamas. Here is Harold’s experience. (Even his name changes when he arrives back at the ward. Nobody calls him Harold here – instead, he is known as ‘Tiny’ on account of his imposing height.)

He remained Harold until the pass was over and he strode away from a clinging family farewell, shrugging the great overcoat around his shoulders and squaring the hat. He was Harold all the way to the bus terminal and all the way back to the hospital, and the other men still looked at him oddly and greeted him a little shyly when he pounded back into C Ward. He went to his bed and put down his several packages (one of which contained the new robe), then headed for the latrine to get undressed. That was the beginning of the end, for when he came out in the old faded pajamas and scuffed slippers there was only a trace of importance left in his softening face, and even that disappeared in the next hour of two, while he lay on his bed and listened to the radio. (p. 165)

Others feel like strangers in their own homes when they go back to ‘the outside’. Things have moved on; children have grown older, more distant. Consequently, patients feel rather out of touch with their own families.

Some of Yates’ stories hark back to the days of WWII, including a piece featuring a strict and vindictive drill sergeant in charge of a platoon of young troops. There is a common theme which runs through a few of the pieces here, a sense of frustration and lack of power felt by the men who fought in the war, their current, fairly stagnant lives falling some way short of the heady expectations of their glory days. This feeling of rage comes out in The B.A.R. Man when a dispirited ex-serviceman finds himself caught up in a protest at the end of an exasperating night.

The final story, Builders, is one of the highlights here, a piece featuring a talented yet struggling writer who finds himself working as a ghostwriter for a somewhat delusional but sharp-witted taxi driver. It’s impossible to do it justice in a few sentences, but Yates paints an intriguing picture, full of insight. It left me wondering if this sketch was based on a real-life encounter with the cabbie, a man who dreams of building stories as a way of injecting some meaning into his somewhat shallow life.

All in all, this is a truly brilliant collection, one that gets right to the heart of certain aspects of human nature. These are stories to linger over, to savour and absorb – very highly recommended.

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.

56 thoughts on “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates

  1. madamebibilophile

    Wonderful review Jacqui – you’ve reminded me what a truly breathtaking writer Yates is. I’ve not read this collection but absolutely want to now!

    On a more shallow note – I do like the covers Vintage are giving their recent Yates editions, they work really well.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s great. You’ve got a real treat in store with this collection.

      As for the covers, it’s not shallow at all. I absolutely love these covers too – they seem to match the mood of these books just perfectly!

      Reply
  2. susanosborne55

    Excellent review, Jacqui. I’m a recent short story convert so will be adding this one to my list. The quotes you’ve pulled out have a clear-eyed understatement to them which makes each one very effective.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I’m glad to hear it, Susan. I don’t think you can go wrong with Richard Yates. He’s such a good writer – it’s hard to think of another author who can capture these emotions with the same degree of skill.

      Reply
  3. MarinaSofia

    How can I resist – Yates is such an excellent (if depressing) writer. I seem to have been reading a lot of short stories lately, and this one intrigues me more than most.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d like this one, Marina, but it might be a good idea to spread the stories out a little, just to put a bit of breathing space between each one. As you can probably guess, it’s not a book to read if you’re feeling a little low or vulnerable. That said, these stories are wonderful as long as you’re prepared for the emotional impact that comes with the territory. .

      Reply
  4. Tredynas Days

    It’s a while since I raced through the complete stories. Must revisit them – your post brought back some good memories. I also have the unedited original versions before Gordon Lish chopped them down – another project. So much to do. Nice review, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s nice to hear. I’m glad my post revived a few memories for you. I wasn’t even aware of the existence of the unedited versions. Thanks for mentioning them – I shall have to investigate!

      Reply
  5. Brian Joseph

    Great commentary as always Jacqui.

    This stories sound very good. Stories about human nature never cease to fascinate.

    As of late I have been reading more short stories myself. I will put this collection on my list.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Brian. I’m glad you like the sound of these stories. I can’t remember if you’ve ever read anything by Yates – but if not, these stories would make a good introduction to his style and themes. I do hope you decide to give him a try one day.

      Reply
  6. heavenali

    Easter Parade is the only Richard Yates I have read and really must read more. These stories sound superb. The quotes you’ve picked really show what a good writer he was.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      He was such a talent. I’m trying to work my way through his oeuvre, rationing myself to roughly one book a year for the next five years or so. Even his so called lesser works contain flashes of sheer brilliance.

      Reply
  7. Sarah

    What a wonderful review! You’ve reminded me that it’s been far too long since I read any Yates, and this collection looks like the perfect way to rectify it.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Sarah. This would be a good re-entry point, for sure. Plus it’s a good one for dipping into every now and again when you’re in need of a Yates fix.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    I have this collection and recently pulled it out to prioritise reading it. Timely clearly. It sounds fabulous, but then Yates.

    Did you read in one go or did you space these out between other reads?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      What a coincidence! As ever, I’ll be fascinated to see your take on it. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Easter Parade as I was reading the second story, The Best of Everything – it’s very much in that style. Grace could have been Emily Grimes, another variation on the same theme of those crushing disappointments in life.

      That’s a interesting question about my approach to reading the book. I read them over the course of three weeks – one story every three days or so with other reads in between (mostly a novel for book group). I think it worked fairly well as I had enough time to digest each story before moving on to the next one. Plus it meant that I could still remember each story when I came to do the write-up. If I’d spread them over a longer period of time then I might have struggled to recall some of the details for this post. I’m not sure I’d recommend reading them all in one go without any gaps as there’s a danger that everything start to merge together, especially some of the stories with similar settings or themes.

      Reply
  9. Maureen Murphy

    Hi Jacqui, an intriguing review and someone to jot onto the “To Be Read” list. This is very presumptuous, but I was tickled by the premise of the “Builders.” Believe it or not, I had a memorable taxi ride in Washington DC. I was inspired that day to write a poem about it and am making bold to include it here. Cheers!

    And Daddy Rides

    Taxi driver, midday sun
    Daughter photo on the dashboard lies
    Long drive, pair of sympathetic eyes
    He tells her story, and rides.

    The bullet wasn’t meant for her
    The boyfriend jumped up out the way
    But she stayed, and now she’ll always stay
    As he rides

    She’ll stay a girl of seventeen
    And locked up in a darkened room
    Her mother keeps her company
    Wrapped in a chrysalis of grief
    As he rides

    One clings to death, one rides the roads
    And though he loves his wife he knows
    That with the little girl she goes

    “She took it hard.”
    Is all he’ll say
    And watch them softly drift away
    As he rides

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      How interesting. I love the way this story has sparked a connection with your poem. It’s very poignant, the third verse in particular. Many thanks for sharing it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I know you’re not a big fan of Yates. Nevertheless, if you ever do feel in the mood to give him another try, these stories would be worth considering, You never know – you might find him more palatable in small doses!

      Reply
  10. Naomi

    I’ve only ever read Revolutionary Road, and have never considered reading his short stories. But this sounds great. It makes me want to find out how his short and long fiction compare.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s interesting. I think he’s equally good over both distances. It must be incredibly challenging to craft a compelling short story as there’s really nowhere to find. I’d love to hear whet you think of them.

      Reply
  11. Scott W

    I haven’t read Yates since Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade many years ago. You make this one appealing – despite what appears to be a streak of cruelty in each story. I mean, an aspiring writer having to ghostwrite for a “delusional but sharp-witted taxi driver” just sounds mean – though all too plausible in American life.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There is a streak of cruelty in a few of of these stories, especially the opening piece: Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern. It reminded me how shitty children can be when faced with someone who is new or ‘different’ in some way. Builders is a really interesting story too. The cabbie is a bit of chancer, so there’s a sense that he’s trying to pull a fast one on the writer (at least at the beginning)!

      Reply
  12. Gubbinal

    Thank you for your wonderful review of one of my favourite books. I kept this short story collection under my pillow when I was a teenager and spent about a year reading and rereading and rereading it. It was an education. I’ve read the stories as an adult, and they hold up brilliantly. I am always excited to find somebody who likes Yates. Thank you again for your brilliant insights into these rich stories.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you for such a beautiful comment. I love the image of you keeping a copy of this collection under your pillow at night, almost like a touchstone of insight and understanding about certain aspects of life. I hope to revisit these stories myself at some point in the future – they certainly feel strong enough to stand up to a re-read.

      Reply
  13. Caroline

    I’m in the middle of this. Like you, I find it very compelling. More than one story feels like a sketch of one of his novels. It was peculiar to discover those condensed early versions.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I completely agree about the novels-in-miniature feel of some of these stories. The Best of Everything reminded me so much of some of the elements in The Easter Parade, particularly Emily’s disappointments at the hands of various uncaring men. A Glutton for Punishment felt like classic Yates too. I’ll be very interested to hear your thoughts on them once you’ve finished.

      Reply
      1. Caroline

        I hope I’ll be able to review them as I paused for a few weeks. Always risky with short stories. And I already have a huge backlog.
        The Best of Everything reminded me of Easter Parade as well.

        Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Lovely! I’m sure they would stand up to a re-read. In fact I’m wondering whether to suggest this collection as a future choice for my book group. Now there’s a thought…

      Reply
  14. bookbii

    It certainly sounds like Richard Yates is becoming a firm favourite Jacqui, and from those extracts, and the delicate and somewhat melancholy tone to the work, I can understand why. I struggled with Revolutionary Road a few years back, and hated the movie, but you’re making me want to try him again. Perhaps he’s one of those writers that requires more patience than I had in those days, and a second chance if it doesn’t gel first time. Lovely review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, he’s on my ‘read everything’ list, along with Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym – maybe Patrick Hamilton, too. I wasn’t keen on the film adaptation of Revolutionary Road either. I can’t remember very much about it now, but I do recall thinking that it was a poor representation (or misinterpretation) of the book. If you’re ever tempted to give him another chance, then I would strongly recommend The Easter Parade. It’s somewhat different to Rev Road – quieter and less dramatic. A sad novel, but beautifully written. I think it’s my favourite Yates so far.

      Reply
      1. bookbii

        Thanks Jacqui, I’ll definitely check out Easter Parade at some point. I remember finding Revolutionary Road very cruel, but perhaps I was poorly influenced by the movie. Timing seems to be so important when it comes to reading. I recall once dismissing DeLillo and that feels like a foolish judgement now so I can well imagine that the same is true for Yates. I haven’t read any Patrick Hamilton – what would you recommend?

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          He shows more compassion for his characters in Easter Parade – more empathy and understanding, I think. It’s a fine book, well worth considering if you ever want to give him another chance. Whatever you decide to do, don’t go for Disturbing the Peace – not that it’s a bad novel (I doubt whether Yates could write a really poor one), but it is shot through with a strong sense of bitterness and resentment. I suspect you would find it very cruel, especially in its treatment of women (or at least the central protagonist’s treatment of the women in his life, particularly his wife). That said, the novel contains some flashes of brilliance, a fact that confirms his talents as a writer – even a so-called ‘lesser’ Yates has things to offer the right reader.

          You raise a good point about timing. I am certainly guilty of dismissing Anita Brookner when I first read her some thirty years ago with Hotel du Lac – everything seems so different now that I’m older and hopefully better placed to appreciate her subtleties.

          As far as Patrick Hamilton goes, I would definitely recommend The Slaves of Solitude, one of my favourite reads in recent years – he nails the desperate sense of loneliness that characterises the central figure in that novel, Miss Roach. Funnily enough, I’ve just been reading another of his wartime books, Hangover Square, which I also loved – I’ll be writing something about it in a few weeks’ time if you’re interested.

          Reply
          1. bookbii

            Thanks Jacqui :) They have The Slaves of Solitude at my library so I’ve added it to my list. I’ll be watching out for the Hangover Square review with interest!

            Reply
            1. JacquiWine Post author

              Great. I’ll be very interested to see what you make of Hamilton should you decide to give him a try. He also wrote a couple of plays that were turned into Hitchcock films, Gaslight and Rope.

              Reply
  15. 1streading

    A pleasure to see you read though Yates’ work as I did when I first discovered him (pre-blog). As usual I can never quite bring myself to finish with a writer entirely and its his other short story collection, Liars in Love, I still haven’t read.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I definitely feel the need to ration my reading of Yates as the notion of having nothing ‘new’ to look forward to is too hard to bear! You know it’s interesting, these stories are more diverse than I had expected before I started the book. The protagonists aren’t just the archetypal thirty-something adults going through some kind of crisis or series of disappointments in their lives. There are children and older characters too. I guess they have given me a different insight into his range as a writer.

      Reply
  16. Pingback: My Reading List for The Classics Club | JacquiWine's Journal

  17. lauratfrey

    Short story collections are so challenging to review. I’m saving this post, not only so i remember to add this to the TBR, but so I have a reminder, next time i attempt to write about a collection, of how to do it right.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I find them tricky to review as well. It’s always difficult to know how much to say to about a particular story! I guess I just try to look for common themes and personal observations.

      Reply

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