Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Twelfth-Night Story Closer: Richard Yates’ “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired”

The release of the film Revolutionary Road, starring Titanic co-stars and offscreen friends Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, has persuaded me to pick up the Richard Yates novel on which it is based, which had sat unconscionably long on my shelves for far too long. I’m only a few chapters into the book, but it already strikes me as, by turns, satiric, corrosive, moving and powerful.

Oddly enough, I had never read this work generally regarded as Yates’ best. I was originally exposed to him through a trio of novels of varying degrees of achievement (in declining order, The Easter Parade, Young Hearts Crying and Cold Spring Harbor) and two exceedingly fine collections of short stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love.

The latter two collections went out of print before being repackaged together, along with several uncollected stories, in The Collected Stories of Richard Yates back in 2001, just at the point when critical opinion began to surge the writer’s way again.

Arriving in time for Oscar nomination season (someone please tell me how I’m going to find time to write this blog and see all the Oscar hopefuls?), Revolutionary Road reminded me of one Yates work with (at least some) relevance for the holiday season: the short story “Oh Joseph, I’m So Tired,” which was part of Liars in Love.

The title comes from a Christmas pageant featured in the story, but it also doubles as a lament for the emotional exhaustion of a family driven to extremes by a single mother’s unfulfilled artistic dreams.

The story recounts a real incident in the life of his mother Ruth (nicknamed “Dookie"). Bohemian in instinct but limited in talent, she had struggled for years to keep herself and her children afloat until she had finally secured a dream assignment: a commission to sculpt a bust of President-elect Franklin Roosevelt.

Then, at the moment when it seemed that doors would finally open for her, this would-be artist threw it all away with a deliberately insulting, self-destructive remark in which she told FDR that a) she was a Republican and b) she had only taken on the assignment because she liked the size of his head and its bumps.

The fate of “Helen,” as she’s called in the story, is shattering—even worse than the final, lonely physical and economic decline that Yeats experienced before his death in 1992:

“She was forty-one, an age when even romantics must admit that youth is gone, and she had nothing to show for the years but a studio crowded with green plaster statues that nobody would buy. She believed in the aristocracy, but there was no reason to suppose the aristocracy would ever believe in her.” Helen is at the beginning of a struggle with alcohol that she’s going to lose, and her anti-Semitism has not only embarrassed her children but alienated people who could be helpful to her.

Appropriately enough, films from works by Yates and F. Scott Fitzgerald (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) premiered this holiday season. Both authors wrote on Madison Avenue before quitting to write novels and short stories; both waged ultimately losing battles with changing literary marketplaces and their addictions; both labored, with not much success, in film; and both are preeminently novelists of lost dreams, disenchantment, and what Fitzgerald termed “emotional bankruptcy.” Indeed, Fitzgerald was a hero of Yates.

If aficionados of pop culture know Yates at all, it is by the most oblique of routes. The commentary on the DVD for the second season of Seinfeld reveals that Yates inspired the character of Elaine’s gruff novelist father in a memorable episode, “The Jacket.” (At one time, Seinfeld co-creator Larry David had dated Yates’ daughter Monica.)

Even if its bombs at the box office, the Sam Mendes adaptation of Revolutionary Road has already introduced thousands of readers to the novelist in a far more substantial way than as a Seinfeld trivia answer. I noticed in the December 21, 2008 issue of The New York Times Book Review that the novel had made its list of the top trade fiction paperback bestsellers.

I hope the film will also induce writers to sample the stories of this often criminally neglected writer. During his lifetime, The New Yorker was a source of bitter disappointment to Yates, constantly sending him encouraging responses to his short stories before ultimately rejecting them. (Ironically, they printed his first story nearly a decade after his death. I’m sure Yates would have had some bitterly funny things to say about that.)

Yates’ Collected Stories—and, in particular, “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired”—demonstrates how mistaken The New Yorker was in its rejection. It is as well worth seeking out as any of Yates’ novels.

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