THE PEOPLE aout whom Richard Yates writes inhabit the territory first charted by John P. Marquand, then by John Cheever and a number of considerably inferior writers. They go to prep schools and private colleges in the Northeast, they marry early and go to work at jobs in New York or Boston, they live for a while in the city but sooner or later move to the suburbs. Many of them make decent amounts of money, if in fact they have not already inherited all that they need, but the money and the comforts it provides do not entirely compensatefor the sense of disappointment they feel, the sense that their lives should have more meaning and consequence.
So they grow sour. By the time the youngest children are off in grammar school their marriages are crumbling. At boozy neighborhood parties husbands make passes at other men's wives, while wives flirt with other women's husbands. Separations are effected, divorces granted. Children shuffle back and forth between Mummy in Westchester or Newton and Daddy in Manhattan or Back Bay. New partners appear and disappear. The sun goes over the yardarm a bit earlier every day, so that before long it is entirely permissible to ease the pain of it all with a late-morning martini, or two, or three.
It is a terribly familiar story that happens also, for Americans of a certain place and class, to be a terribly true one. It has rarely been told any better than it was in Yates' deservedly celebrated first novel, Revolutionary Road, published nearly a quarter-century ago, and in many of the short stories he has subsequently written. In that novel Yates managed to make the reader feel all of the pain of a disintegrating marriage that once seemed to hold nothing except bright promise, and also to depict with exceptional verisimilitude the most telling minutiae of suburban life.
In Young Hearts Crying Yates is back in this familiar territory, but sad to say the similarities just about end right there. Where the first novel was artful, this latest is awkward; where the first was subtle, this latest is obvious; where the first was sympathetic, this latest is disdainful. Young Hearts Crying means to be a sensitive and affectionate account of the lives of its characters, but it ends up being mostly bitter -- for them and toward them. It is so clumsily constructed, moreover, that any empathy Yates wants to conjure up for his characters is lost in the clanking of the machinery.
Chief among these characters is Richard Davenport, who has come to Harvard on the GI Bill after serving in World War II as a gunner on a B-17. At Harvard he develops a desire to establish himself as a poet and playwright, and he meets Lucy Blaine, who immediately seems just the girl for him but who waits until the honeymoon to tell him, "The thing is I have something between three and four million dollars. Of my own." In her view the money offers an "extraordinary opportunity for time and freedom in his work"; in his it "might only bleed away his ambition, and might even rob him of the very energy he needed to work at all; that would be an unthinkable price to pay."
So the noble Michael goes off by day to a job with a trade magazine in New York, and by night -- well, some nights -- he works away at his poetry. For a time all is fine, as the Davenports live and love in Greenwich Village, even though Michael develops a monumental crush on a fellow-worker's girlfriend. But before long the inevitable move to the suburbs takes place, and with it the inevitable psychic disruptions. First they rent a house in Larchmont, then another in Putnam County. They miss their artistically-inclined friends from Manhattan, but they seem to have found replacements in Tom Nelson, a successful young painter, and his wife, Pat.
The problem, though, is that Nelson's success contrasts all too severely with Michael's failure. He does get a volume of poems published, and from time to time he encounters someone who has read them with admiration, but he is really just another person whose aspirations are greater than his talents or energies. He is also a person of such monumentally inept and boorish social behavior that virtually every friendship he and Lucy make is tested by one of his puerile eruptions. Finally he tests Lucy herself to the breaking point, and she announces that she wants a divorce.
It's at about this point that the novel spins out of control. When Michael moves off to New York, he practically disappears for more than a hundred pages; the book that had been centered around him suddenly becomes, without warning, Lucy's book. However attractive she may be, she is depicted as "a rich, rich girl who didn't know where to go and didn't know what to do," a person for whom "idleness and waste can become a way of life." She dabbles at writing, at painting, at love affairs, but proves not much good at any of them -- least of all the last, as she succumbs to the attentions of one loutish character after another.
And then, equally suddenly, Young Hearts Crying is Michael's book again and, equally without warning, Lucy almost vanishes. But by now the plot has lurched back and forth in so many directions, and so many uniformly uninteresting characters have made their appearances, that the reader's patience has been exhausted. The reappearance of Michael, moreover, is scarcely any cause for pleasure, for he is such a wholly dislikeable fellow that it is absolutely impossible to maintain any sympathetic interest in him; the words used by his second wife to describe his behavior in one period -- "self-indulgence," 'self-pitying," "self-aggrandizing" -- are actually so appropriate to his behavior throughout that the reader only wants to be rid of him.
Richard Yates apparently intends this novel to be an elegaic portrait of "wonderful boys and girls destined for things they never quite achieved," and the theme of shattered hopes is pounded away at repeatedly. But what is intended to be elegaic turns out in the end to be merely cranky, which is certainly appropriate to the story of Michael Davenport but is no pleasure to read about -- all the less so because in both style and structure the novel is so perfunctorily executed. Yates has written some very good books, but Young Hearts Crying is not one of them. CAPTION: Picture, Richard Yates. Copyright (c) 1984 By Jill Krementz