The Easter Parade by Richard Yates
Richard Yates is now ranked alongside John Cheever and Raymond Carver as one of the foremost poets of the lonely American suburbs. His first novel, Revolutionary Road, was published in 1961 and was shortlisted for the National Book award alongside Catch 22; he spent the rest of his career trying to live up to the promise of that brilliant, bleak debut. Tennessee Williams lauded it a "masterpiece in modern American fiction". Praise can be as corrosive to inspiration as criticism.
Unlike Cheever and Carver, however, Yates' books fell out of print and, following his death in 1992, he could easily have been consigned to obscurity. But then Nick Hornby got hold of a copy of Revolutionary Road, and began talking it up. Kate Atkinson, Julian Barnes and Sebastian Faulks added their voices, a new edition was published in 2001, and now Yates occupies the place he deserves - among the best American writers of the last century.
The Easter Parade was published in 1976; a mid career piece, one of five novels written in a nine year burst of creativity (stretching from Disturbing the Peace in 1975 to Young Hearts Crying in 1984). The story spans the four decades from the 1930s and centres on the lives of Emily and Sarah Grimes, the daughters of the flaky "Pookie" and the alcoholic Walter Grimes, soon to disappear from their lives following a divorce. Decent, disappointed Walter supposedly writes headlines for the New York Sun, although a poignant early scene reveals him as little more than a copy desk man. Proudly showing his daughters around the thundering presses ("white streaks of newsprint ran in every direction through the machines, and finished newspapers came rolling out in neat, overlapped abundance."), he admits that the paper he works for is too reactionary for his tastes, but jobs are hard to find. Yates' skill in drawing character is much in evidence here, there's a tenderness in which he asks his young daughters if they're ready for lunch and then: "Want to go to the ladies' room first?"
Pookie, meanwhile, waits at home in New Jersey, "a small, active woman whose life seemed pledged to achieving and sustaining an elusive quality she called 'flair.'" Pookie, with her "air of dazed and vulnerable uncertainty", is the psychological model for her eldest child, Sarah, while thoughtful, intelligent Emily - the Lisa Simpson of this dysfunctional brood - is cast in her fathers' mould. In fact the novel becomes largely the story of Emily when Sarah's marriage to an Englishman sees her leaving New York to slowly sink into the suburban disappointment that destroyed her mother.
One of the more intriguing aspects of The Easter Parade is the appearance about half way through of the character John Flanders who becomes one of Emily's lovers. Flanders (yes, you can't help wondering if Matt Groening grew up reading Yates), like Yates, showed great early promise and was hugely praised for his first published work. He admits, "the second book's okay too; probably not as good as the first. Only for Christ's sake don't mess with the third one. It's lousy. You wouldn't believe how lousy." Flanders is still writing but it's not as easy as it was: "I could feel it, the way you feel blood in your veins - and now I reach for it and reach for it, and it isn't there."
Certainly with The Easter Parade, there is a feeling of a writer - albeit a great writer - going through the motions. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with the book - it just feels a little forced. Emily, as a character, remains just out of reach. Sarah's English husband is a caricature. But Yates is always worth reading for the moments and the poetry. If you haven't read Revolutionary Road, perhaps you should save it for after The Easter Parade. Few writers could have bettered such a perfectly executed piece. A writer, in his lifetime, will always be cursed if his masterpiece is his debut, though in terms of his posterity, it hardly matters.