A Story That Made Me Want to Write

A Story That Made Me Want to Write

On Yates’s “The Best of Everything”

By DeWitt Henry, Contributing Editor

I first read Richard Yates’s short story “The Best of Everything,” some fifty years ago. 

Yates was in his prime then as the promising author of Revolutionary Road, which he had just followed with the collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, where this story appears. He became my mentor at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and later my friend. 

Richard Yates Photo/Courtesy of Emerson College
Richard Yates Photo/Courtesy of Emerson College

As a model, this story inspired me, and I have taught it to fiction writing students for decades, particularly for its dialogue. And certainly Yates’s dialogue is subtle and infectious, with accuracies of idiom and tone as remarkable as those in Hemingway, Welty, and Salinger. “Dialogue reveals more than it states,” Yates would say. But for writers, there is even more to be learned from the Yates story about managing perspective, voice, and ironies of separated perception, vocabulary, and values in what amounts to a double plot.

The story concerns a mismatched, working-class couple in Manhattan on the eve of their marriage in the 1950s. One of my students, when she finished it, said that it convinced her to break up with her boyfriend; and when Yates himself heard that, he groaned. No, that wasn’t what he’d meant at all.

I was privileged to read with Yates at the Boston Globe Book Festival in 1981. After he read this story, I followed with my own, “Possession” (from The Marriage of Anna Maye Potts), and only realized as I was reading that my story about a honeymoon in Atlantic City was almost a sequel to that of  Yates’s characters; although my best art hardly matched his.

The text of “The Best of Everything” is not available on line. However, you can listen to Yates’s brilliant reading of the entire story at the Boston Public Library in 1978, where his pride and relish in its key points is manifest.

Below, I’ve included my comments from the Yates panel at the Associated Writing Programs Convention in 2008:

Richard Yates by David Omar White
Richard Yates by David Omar White

Points of Craft from Richard Yates

What I learned from Richard Yates was that fiction is pure, wise, and even visionary, where life is messy, culpable and baffling. For me this was a personal lesson, reinforced by reading Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty.

But for my students over the years, as I teach Yates’s stories, I keep coming back to the wonderful things he said about Gina Berriault in a 1979 issue of Ploughshares:

Gina Berriault knows that ill-educated or inarticulate people are as sensitive as anyone else. She renders their speech with a fine and subtle ear for the shy or strident inaccuracies, for the bewilderment of missed points and for the dim, sad music of cliches; but when she takes us into their minds, their thoughts and feelings come out in a prose as graceful, as venturesome and precise as she can make it. That’s a rare ability, and reflects a rare degree of insight. It may well be one of the most valuable skills a writer can learn–which makes it disappointing to discover, time and again, how few of the most celebrated novelists have bothered to learn it at all.”

How do we, as writers, address the distance between us and them? Between the class of “us”–readers, writers, the articulate and educated and presumably clear minded–and the class of “them”–people who do not write or read, the inarticulate, the muddled? Who is interpreting, paraphrasing, and feeling with the characters of Ralph and Grace, for instance, in Yates’s classic story, “The Best of Everything”?

Think of the opening scene: Grace is a Manhattan secretary, surrounded by well-wishing co-workers, just before the weekend of her marriage to Ralph, a clerk, to whom she is speaking on the phone. The story opens from Grace’s point of view and Yates establishes her idiom and vocabulary level both in direct speech and in her thoughts. Then we get this transitional paragraph:

All right,” she said. “I’ll see you then, darling.” 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 stationery 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. 

Such phrases as “irrevocably clear,” “alien sound,” and “vulnerable” are in the writer’s idiom, not Grace’s; it is also the sophisticated writer whose syntax offers us the ironies of parallelism. At the same time, the very rhythms of these sentences, emotionally, are Grace’s: we both feel and understand “the grip of panic”; we feel the confusion; Grace’s conflict is dramatized by interpretive paraphrase.

Changing to Ralph’s point of view, Yates’s narrator remains omnipresent and for the most part invisible, fully submerging us in Ralph’s idiom. Ralph, of course, unlike Grace, does have emotional confidantes, who share his “sad, dim music of cliches.” He needs to borrow a suitcase for his wedding trip to Pennsylvania because he can’t afford the new one he sees in a shop window:

A big, tawny Gladstone with a zippered compartment on the side, at thirty-nine ninety five–and Ralph had had his eye on it ever since Easter time. “Think I’ll buy that,” he’d told Eddie, in the same offhand way that a day or so before he had announced his engagement (“Think I’ll marry the girl”). Eddie’s response to both remarks had been the same: “Whaddaya–crazy?” Both times Ralph had said, “Why not?” and in defense of the bag he had added, “Gonna get married, I’ll need somethin’ like that.” From then on it was as if the bag, almost as much as Gracie herself, had become a symbol of the new and richer life he sought. But after the ring and the new clothes and all the other expenses, he’d found that he couldn’t afford it; he had settled for the loan of Eddie’s, which was similar but cheaper and worn, and without the zippered compartment.

The writer’s voice here almost takes on the role of “the poet” in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio stories as Yates in a sense speaks for Ralph, both with perception and with apologetic eloquence: “a symbol of the new and richer life he sought.” At the same time, much of the unspoken prose of this paragraph reads like notes from a therapist’s interview with Ralph. Ralph would never say “new and richer life,” but Ralph would itemize the features of the bag. Why, a recording angel might ask Ralph, why do you “settle” for Eddie’s bag? What’s wrong with it? “Ahh, yeah,” Ralph might reply in direct speech, “it’s cheaper, it’s worn, and besides it doesn’t have the zippered compartment. “

One of the great moments–there are many–in this story is when Yates first dramatizes Eddie’s surprise party for Ralph and the gift of the Gladstone bag as a consummation of male/male love (“But Ralph couldn’t speak and couldn’t smile. He could hardly even see”) and later has Ralph attempt to narrate the event to Grace in dialogue: “His fingers tightened again, trembling. ‘I cried, Gracie,’ he whispered. ‘I couldn’t help it. I don’t think the fellas saw or anything, but I was cryin’.” At which point, he lapses into a catalogue of the terrific meal Eddie’s mother fed them, and Grace, preoccupied with romantic anticipation, can only reply: “Wasn’t that nice.” Thanks to Yates’s earlier eloquence in Ralph’s behalf, we understand the consummation that Ralph himself can’t relate and that Grace doesn’t want to hear; we also understand Grace’s vulnerability and expectation.

Earlier in the story, Yates has taken us into Grace’s mind as she imagines their honeymoon:

Then the church and the ceremony, and then the reception … and finally the train to Atlantic City, and to the hotel. But from the hotel on she couldn’t plan any more. A door would lock behind her and there would be a wild, fantastic silence and nobody in all the world but Ralph to lead the way.

The vision that Yates offers us is excruciating, hilarious, and compassionate as expectations collide and communication fails. Ralph finally gets the point of Grace’s amorous offer, but has promised the fellas that he would return to the bachelor party. Yates tells us: “She blazed to her feet, but the cry that was meant for a woman’s appeal came out, through her tightening lips, as the whine of a wife. ‘Can’t they wait?'” The writer speaks for her in “blazed … woman’s appeal. .. whine of a wife,” articulating both what she feels and what she perceives, but that she can’t fully express to Ralph. Ralph reacts defensively, echoing Eddie’s expression: “Whaddayacrazy?”

Yates then drops into Ralph’s point of view, paraphrasing Ralph’s unspoken thoughts: “He backed away; eyes round with righteousness. She would have to understand. If this was the way she was before the wedding, how the hell was it going to be afterwards? ‘Have a heart, willya? Keep the fell as waitin’ tonight? After all they done for me?’ …. After a second or two, during which her face became less pretty than he had ever seen it before, she was able to smile. ‘Of course not, darling. You’re right.'” We read that “during which her face became less pretty” from both points of view, aware of her complex anger and resignation, and aware of Ralph’s glimpse into the threat of her humanity, and of his relief as she retreats behind a mask of compliance. He will exit, in Yates’s words, “a husband reassured.” The narrator’s sensitive regard for his characters contrasts to their own fallible and defensive rejections of each other. The marriage will go forward, but the aspiration for a fuller and richer life on both sides has been replaced by resignation and a dispiriting social conformity.

Which brings us to the “rare degree of insight” reflected by such craft. Yates’s narrative skill prevents us from either sentimentalizing or patronizing Grace and Ralph. The more articulate minor characters in this story, Mr. Atwood the boss, and Martha the sophisticated roommate fare no better. If Ralph and Grace can’t speak what they feel, Yates suggests, perhaps nobody can. From Robert Prentice, the talented and sophisticated writer in “Builders” to Frank and April Wheeler in Revolutionary Road: our sad and hilarious state is only to be made clear rather than to make ourselves clear. Clarity comes from distance; to make sense of our lot, as writers, we are never privileged in our lives.

For more by and about Yates, see Richard Yates:  Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness with an Introduction by Richard Price (Everyman’s Library, 2009), Blake Bailey’s biography, A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates (Picador, 2003), and Kate Charlton-Jones’s Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates (U. of Alabama, 2014).

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