Taking a Cue from Yates

Never underestimate the way that happenstance plays such an intrinsic role in life (or, in this instance, a writing life). Consider: in 1992 I had just finished work on my first novel, “The Dead Heart,” and had accepted an assignment from The Observer in London to spend a few days immersed in the gimcrack absurdities of that country-and-western hellhole called Branson, Missouri. On the way back to London (where I was living at the time) I had to drive to Kansas City (a rather interesting town) for the first of two flights back to the U.K., and found one of those amazing used bookshops which was run by a wild bibliophile and seemed to stock everything from Kierkegaard to the poems of Randall Jarrell to the dime store prose of Mickey Spillane. While browsing I happened to come across a copy of Richard Yates’ novel, “Revolutionary Road:” a work I’d heard much about, but had never gotten around to reading (especially as it had just come back into print after a long hiatus). For a whopping $3.50 I bought the slightly dog-eared copy, thinking I might read a chapter or two on the two flights home.

As it turned out I spent the entire transatlantic night seated upright in a cramped economy seat, riveted by Yates’ tale of all-American entrapment. The story was one I knew too well: a couple who meet in New York after the war, both unformed and uncertain of their place in the world. She falls pregnant. They marry. A second child quickly arrives – and they talk themselves into that commonplace compromise: a life in the then-expanding white-bred suburbs. Whereupon they realize that they have entrapped themselves in a cul-de-sac of their own making, and begin to emotionally implode.

Having been raised amidst a postwar marriage that was Strindbergian in its explosiveness – and having been dragged each summer to a Connecticut seaside town (Old Greenwich) for two months, where we rented a house amidst all the other suburbanites – the physical and emotional geography of the novel hit me with full frontal force. But so too did its themes of self-entrapment and the way we so often talk ourselves into lives that we simply don’t want. And then there was Yates’ devastating command of marital dysfunction and the brutal honesty he showed when it came to detailing the way the couple in the novel – Frank and April Wheeler – articulate their despair by flailing at each other.

The novel resonated within me for weeks thereafter. I told many friends about it (especially American friends of my generation). And a few months later, when I began work on my second novel, “The Big Picture,” I too began to write a tale of self-entrapment in the Connecticut ‘burbs – very different in style and orientation to Yates’ masterpiece, but nonetheless my own hommage to one of the truly great postwar American novels… and one which still speaks volumes today about the way we are the ultimate architects of our own unhappiness.



  • Nathalie Budet

    J’ai découvert Douglas Kennedy en lisant son dernier roman (version française) “Cet instant-là”. Mon fils a eu le plaisir de rencontrer l’auteur au dernier Salon du Livre à Paris et m’a fait la joie de me le faire dédicacer. J’ai littéralement dévoré ce roman.Tout naturellement, j’ai voulu en savoir plus sur l’auteur….Je suis depuis devenue une lectrice assidue des “brèves pensées” de Douglas. Quoi dire d’autre ? Bien évidemment que j’aimerais lire “Five days”.

  • Rosemary Chivers

    I’ve read all of your books – favourite is Pursuit of Happiness which after reading allowed me to forgive someone for their (as I saw it at the time) disgraceful bad behaviour…….have just finished The Moment …..which unlike POH I found terribly sad……my sisters & I trade your books and I commented to them that you have obviously experienced both the exquisite heights of passion & lust and the troughs of heartbreak…….because I recognise them only too well in the writing….I was saddened to hear you are recently divorced after a number of years…….that’s a tough one…….looking forward to your next ,publication.

  • http://facebook.com/kaloyana Kaloyana Slavova

    I have recently read two books by Yetes. He is really someone who knows human soul and its darkest places. I actually love more The Easter Parade. So sad and so true story. And Richard Yates writes the way his words somehow smuggle somewhere between my skin and my bones and travel for a long, long time.