IF YOU'VE READ Richard Yates since his remarkable first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961), or if you've discovered him along the way, through his brilliant collection of stories, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, (1962) or one of his other novels, especially The Easter Parade (1976) and A Good School (1978), then it probably won't matter to you that his new book of stories is not always up to his best work. With a writer this good, you'll want to see for yourself, as you would with Updike or Cheever, whose turf, the suburbs of the Northeast, Yates often treads.
Were Liars in Love Yates' first book and not his seventh, if it did not have the other books to live up to, then almost any reader would come away from it satisfied. The characters, from a young Scottish prostitute to an aging suburban St. Louis doctor, live; they are believable without being predictable, they have depth and weight. The settings are surely sketched, whether the Scarsdale house in "Trying Out for the Race"--"a jumble of architectural styles and materials: much of it was mock-Tudor but there were other expanses of fieldstone and still others of pink stucco, as if several things had gone wrong with the building plans and the men had been obliged to finish the job as best they could"--or the professionally decorated room in a Beverly Hills mansion in "Saying Goodbye to Sally":
"Much of the wall space was given over to glass: huge gilt-framed mirrors on one side and an L-shaped display of French windows along two others, with heavy curtains poised to glide and sweep across their panes. There were two double beds . . . and on various chests or end tables around the expanse of deep white carpet stood big pottery lamps whose fabric shades were three or four feet tall. In one corner, at the far end of the room, was a very low, round, black-lacquered table with a floral centerpiece, and with cushions placed at intervals around it as if in readiness for a Japanese meal."
Description, however deft, is of little worth unless it has an important function in the story, and both passages make useful suggestions about the lives these walls enclose.
What is best about a few of the seven stories in Liars in Love,--"Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired," "Trying Out for the Race" and "A Compassionate Leave"--is the same quality that makes A Good School such a memorable novel: Yates' ability to evoke the texture of an earlier time, in these three cases the years while Franklin Roosevelt was president. These are the years of Yates' youth, and children play an important part in each of the stories, the childhoods poignantly distanced by memory and beautifully filtered through an adult sensibility, as in this scene from "Oh, Joseph, I'm So Tired":
"And those hugs of his, the climax of his visitation rights, were unforgettable. One at a time we would be swept up and pressed hard into the smells of linen and whiskey and tobacco; the warm rasp of his jaw would graze one cheek and there would be a quick, moist kiss near the ear; then he'd let us go.
"He was almost all the way out of the courtyard, almost out in the street, when Edith and I went racing after him.
" 'Daddy! Daddy! You forgot the stamps!'
"He stopped and turned around, and that was when we saw he was crying. He tried to hide it--he put his face nearly into his armpits as if that might help him search his inside pocket--but there is no way to disguise the awful bloat and pucker of a face in tears.
" 'Here,' he said. 'Here you go.' And he gave us the least convincing smile I had ever seen. It would be good to report that we stayed and talked to him--that we hugged him again--but we were too embarrassed for that. We took the stamps and ran home without looking back."
This passage might easily have been too sweetly sad. But notice how the disillusionment of the grown man in the last two sentences dissolves the near-pathos of the childhood memory.
Yates does not go wrong when his nostalgia flirts with sentimentality, as above; problems arise when he moves too far in the other direction, distancing himself from his stories by showing too little sympathy for the characters. For example, in the same story, "Oh, Joseph," the main character is the narrator's mother, who lives off her divorced husband and works, or plays, at being a sculptor, doing "garden figures . . . fanciful children in plaster painted green to simulate weathered bronze" in her Greenwich Village studio, and hopes to be taken up by the fashionable world. Her big chance comes when a friend gets her a job doing a bust of FDR, to be presented to the great man at the White House. At the beginning of the story, we learn that "she was confident of everything she did in those days, but it never quite disguised a terrible need for support and approval on every side." Near the end of the story, when her visit to the Oval Office has not altered the fact that she is, and always will be, only an amateur artist, Yates tells us that "she was then at the onset of a long battle with alcohol that she would ultimately lose." Our hearts would go out to her, except that Yates makes her so unrelievedly fatuous. We cannot care for her more than he does.
This is a problem that recurs both in these stories (in "A Natural Girl," for instance, and "Regards at Home") and elsewhere in Yates' work. When the suburban housewife of Revolutionary Road kills herself while trying to abort a child, it is shocking and sad, but without the emotional impact it would have had if she were a character about whom we felt more strongly. Yates looks darkly at human nature; one of his strengths is that he doesn't flinch. But the very best writers can show us our silliness or vanity, or worse, in characters whom we cannot dismiss so easily.
Even when Yates' stories only partially succeed, there is so much else of interest going on in them that they are always worth serious attention. At their best--and "A Compassionate Leave," the story of a young soldier who grows up not on the battlefield but on a painful visit to the sister he has not seen since childhood, is as good as anything in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness--they stand comfortably with the finest realistic fiction being written.