Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

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.

Personally, I thought this was better than Revolutionary Road, and I can’t wait to keep reading his novels. The next one I’ll be reading is Young Hearts Crying; I’d be delighted if you’d join me.

24 comments

  1. Wow this sounds absolutely brilliant. I am yet to have read a word of Yates and think I need to correct that. I will start with Revolutionary Road and see if they have any more in the library. I think the premise of this one is really interesting and the fact it had you hooked is a major plus. I do so love the Vintage covers of these.

  2. Ooh, a Richard Yates book that has a glimmer of hope! (Sounds like a faint glimmer, but still, that's something different for Yates.)

  3. I haven't heard of this book before. In fact I think the only one I've heard of is Revolutionary Road, which I plan to read soon. It is great to know that he has written an even better book and will keep an eye out for a copy.

  4. [Still trying not to cry after not winning this from your previous giveaway, harhar.] I skipped over most of this, because I want to devour it the moment I get my greedy hands on a book (difficult in this archipelago, lemme tell you)–but I did see you're reading Young Hearts Crying next, and I *did* manage to get a copy of that. :] So I'll be tuned in. :]

  5. Well that was a roller coaster ride! I hated this guy, then I wanted to slap him, then I felt guilty because he has issues…obviously. And that was just the review! Kristina and I are starting To Bed with Grand Music this weekend but I must experience this Yates fellow. Since I have The Easter Parade on my shelf, I'll reach for that one and we can compare notes later. Vintage has done a wonderful job with the cover art on these books!

  6. I haven't read any Richard Yates books or Revolutionary Road either. This sounds like something I need to go look into🙂 Glad you enjoyed it so much. Don't you love it when that happens?

  7. I have to admit I haven't read Revolutionary Road yet – it is on my bookshelf so hopefully will get to it some time soon (though have many books I say that about!!). I haven't seen the film though either, so that makes not reading it yet a little more excusable I think! I also really fancy Easter Parade – I'm really looking forward to hearing what you think about this one too. Oh, and I completely agree with Darlene – I love the covers of the Vintage prints! Alison

  8. Better than Revolutionary Road?? Is that even possible?? I can't wait to read it, Rachel, thanks to you! And yes, I will be joining you for Young Hearts Crying. Are you reading it right away?

  9. This sounds great! I do want to read more Yates, and I am particularly fond of books that feature mental illness. Thanks for the recommendation!

  10. This book sounds fantastic. I've meant to read something else by Yates since I read Revolutionary Road many years ago. This great post of yours reminded me and this book sounds just the ticket. I am completely captivated by the story you have out-lined here. I liked Revolutionary Road very much so I'm really looking forward to reading a better book by Yates! If it was easier for me to get to a book store, I would seriously consider going and purchasing this book now!

  11. I've seen the movie of Revolutionary Road, but have yet to read anything written by Yates. Your review convinced me that I should — this book sounds like a great read!

  12. I've spotted those lovely Vintage covers around, but have never got around to reading any Yates. I think that's going to change, though – that book sounds fantastic.

  13. Simon – You do need to correct this – ASAP! Revolutionary Road is a very good place to start – it is widely considered his best. I look forward to hearing your views! And yes, the covers are stunning – Vintage have really captured the mood of each novel well.Teresa – Haha! I know! Very faint, and you have to look hard for it, but it's there!Jackie – I hope you manage to find a copy! I think you will like him.Diane – The Easter Parade is on my list! I hope you'll join me on the readalong.Sasha – I am so sorry! I'm glad you got one book though, and I look forward to reading your views on it!Darlene – You're so funny! I can't wait to hear your thoughts on The Easter Parade – and on the Laski – I am jealous that you're reading that! I'll let you know when I'm going to start Easter Parade, you might be done with the Laski by then.Old Bookworm – I'd love you to find a copy somewhere! I do love it when I read something so gripping and clever – Yates is incredible!Alison – Yes, aren't the covers beautiful! You MUST read Revolutionary Road if you have it on your shelf already! What are you waiting for?!Claire – I think it is possible, yes!!! I am starting Young Hearts Crying tomorrow on my commute to work so it will be great to have you read along!Jenny – Glad you like the sound of it! I hope you manage to read it soon.Amy – Thank you, I'm glad I reminded you! I hope you manage to get a copy soon!Henry – Thank you, I will check both the book and link out!Bored – I'm glad I've convinced you – it is a great read indeed!Makedo – Yes, the covers are eye catching, aren't they? Go and read them soon – I am sure you will love them.

  14. Rachel.. I might not be able to squeeze in Young Hearts Crying at the moment, but will try to do so next week. That's still reading along with you, right? Even if a few days late?😀

  15. Sheila – thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it!JoAnn – Yes indeed! I hope you get to read it soon!Claire – Of course it is!! Whenever you are ready! It's longer than Disturbing the Peace so it's taking me a while to read anyway!

  16. Excited about your Yates season. Very excited. Went through my own last year, leading up to the (rather disappointing, but somewhat irrelevant, though actually helpful as far as notoriety and literary reputation goes) film.

    I thought Disturbing the Peace was quite powerful. It falls below the tandem of RevRoad and Easter Parade, but only just slightly, and it’s a challenging and slightly skewed third book. The madness in the background of RevRoad (Jon Givens) is foregrounded, and even put on film.

    Great great great–eager to read more. Fascinating that you started with Disturbing the Peace. Very brave, and wonderful that you enjoyed it so much.

  17. I have recently become a Yates fanatic, and agree that his work really is underread! I thought Disturbing the Peace was great; I was surprised to read that when it was published it was dismissed as his weakest book. I even enjoyed it more than The Easter Parade, which seems to be more popular than DTP.

    By the way, I just discovered your blog Rachel and it’s wonderful!! I can’t wait to read along with the Virago Reading Week – I have a Virago copy of The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter which I now have a good reason to get into!

    1. Hello Lisa! I’m so glad to hear that you have recently discovered Yates – it really is criminal that he is so little read and I think everyone who picks up his books comes to the same conclusions. Disturbing the Peace is truly excellent and I agree – I don’t think it his weakest book at all. I haven’t read all of them yet – I am missing a couple – but I think that actually Yates is a remarkably consistent writer and really I couldn’t pick any one of his books that I think is ‘worse’ or ‘better’ – they are all fantastic in their own ways.

      How lovely you are! I am so pleased to hear that – it will be a pleasure to have you reading along and joining in with the Reading Week too – I do so love having new readers!

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