The Richard Yates season starts here! I decided to kick off with Disturbing the Peace; it looked dark and brooding, and as England is currently covered by grey skies and it’s January, month of penury and back to work blues, dark and brooding felt like a good place to start.
This short novel opens with John Wilder, a New York advertising executive in his mid 30s, calling his wife from a downtown Manhattan bar, telling her he can’t come home because if he does, he’s afraid he’ll kill her and their young son Tommy. His wife, Janice, calls their best friend Paul, who heads down to the bar to assess the situation. It soon emerges that John, who is an unacknowledged alcoholic, is going through a nervous breakdown, and Paul gets him checked into a mental hospital, Bellevue, to recover. John spends a week in Bellevue, before he has recovered enough, and considered sane enough, to be let home. He goes back to his apartment, to the plain, sweet wife he can’t remember why he married, and the son who is uncommunicative and afraid of him. John finds his life unbearable; his job is unfulfilling, his family life is stifling, and he seeks escape in alcohol and affairs with young women to forget his miserable existence. In the evenings, when Janice thinks he’s out at AA meetings, he’s really drinking himself into oblivion, or sleeping with a twentysomething secretary he’s picked up in a bar. Then he meets Pamela, a young, intelligent, attractive woman, who he begins a long term affair with. Like John, she’s always had a dream about making it in the movies, and together they hatch a plan to make a film about John’s experiences. John feels filled with hope again, but before long, he finds his mental state collapsing and his mind begins to spiral out of control.
I couldn’t put this down. It was absolutely marvellous. Richard Yates was a genius, and I don’t understand why his novels aren’t classics. The writing is sparse, gripping, and gets you completely inside the head of John. Towards the end, when John is sinking into madness, you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. John is an everyman, and completely relatable; his frustration and feelings of entrapment are, I am sure, familiar to many of us. What do you do when life hasn’t lived up to the dreams you had? What do you do when ‘home’ is a prison you feel you can never escape from, stifling you, binding you to a life you never wanted but fear you can never change? John doesn’t know where to turn – he seeks short term thrills in alcohol and women, but the sadness of his life is that really, he doesn’t know what he wants. He wants to be happy, but he seems incapable of it; nothing is enough for him.
The scenes inside the psychological ward at Bellevue are incredible; I wonder whether Yates had any experience of being inside one himself. The characters are brilliantly realised, their delusions and inability to understand that they are not sane, expertly described. I was just blown away. I love how Yates can just express the secret fears, the banality and entrapment of everyday life. Most of us accept that life cannot be all we dream; we find happiness anyway. But for those, like John, who can’t cope with the reality of life, their outlook is bleak. For what can you do when you can’t live with the life you have made? What do you do when nothing fills the ache, the void inside of your soul that tells you there is more out there, without knowing how to find it? How do you hold onto your sanity when all seems hopeless?
Sounds depressing, but it’s not, because there is hope in this novel as much as there is despair. It’s a wonderful exploration of the promise of the American Dream; of how a generation were told life would be light, bright, sparkling; the images of smiling, beautiful people in advertisements with shiny new appliances and big, flashy cars telling them that if they made enough money, if they bought the right products, if they wore the right clothes, all would be happy, serene, perfect, forever. John Wilder was a victim of that Dream. The day he woke up and realised the Dream would never come true, he lost his sanity. However, his wife, his friends, his colleagues, his girls; they all grasp the life they can have with both hands, and find happiness where they can. They make the best of what they have, and they enjoy life, as it is. But John wants it all, and that is his downfall; he can’t live an ordinary life. He wants the magic he was promised as a child, and he can’t accept that it was all just an illusion.