Can any writer, in the world since 1925, write a novel set on Long Island in which automobiles play a significant role and not prompt a comparison with The Great Gatsby? This question was on my mind by page 2 of this book – by which point it was very clear to be that, first, this novel was going to be nothing like Gatsby, and, second, that I would spend every second of time I spent reading it forcing that comparison.
The first sentence of this wonderful short novel is “All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles.” Now, I am a sucker for a straightforward first sentence, and this one charms me more than most. First, we know that our protagonist either was or still is a lout, and we know that one some level his loutishness caused sorrow for him and/or for others. We know that his age places him in the older end of the Greatest Generation, that he was born at the tail end of World War I and was eleven when the stock market crashed, leaving him old enough to observe and understand the damaged world in which he came of age. And then there is the fabulous idea that falling in love with automobiles can be a form of redemption. Am I the only reader who finds this idea a little fishy?
Evan’s father is Charles Shepard, whose distinguishing characteristic throughout the novel is his disappointment that World War I ended before he could participate in it. Charles was an army officer who completed his training and arrived in Europe for the war just in time for the armistice, and he wouldn’t listen to any of the experienced soldiers and officers who told him to consider himself lucky. Charles returned to his young wife determined to see his life as having already been deemed permanently unlucky. He remained in the army for several years, conceived a son, and dealt with his own health problem (declining vision) and his wife’s health problems, which seem to be a combination of depression and alcoholism. Leaving the army, Charles and his wife and son settled in Cold Spring Harbor – which is located somewhere east of East Egg, I think – where Charles settled in to live the rest of his life as a devoted husband and father always existing in a cloud of disappointment.
All of the information I’ve given you above is summarized almost as briefly in the first few chapters of the novel, as is the fact that when Evan is a high school senior he rapidly meets, seduces, impregnates, and marries a classmate named Mary Donovan. They rent an apartment and Evan goes to work in a machine factory, but very shortly after their daughter is born, they argue, recognize that they have very different aims in life, and arrange for Mary’s parents to raise their daughter while Mary goes to college and Evan moves back in with his parents.
Charles Shepard’s vision continues to decline, and one day he asks Evan to drive him into New York City to see an eye doctor. (I hear there is a wild wag of an oculist whose practice needs fattening somewhere in the borough of Queens, I told them – but they didn’t listen. Literary characters never listen.) They never make it to the doctor, though, because their car breaks down (DUM DUM DUM) in front of Gloria Drake’s apartment, and when they knock on the door and ask to use the phone, Gloria falls in love with Charles and Evan falls in love with Gloria’s daughter Rachel. Within another chapter or so of quick summary, Evan and Rachel are engaged and Gloria has resigned herself to the fact that she and Charles will never be more than close friends – although she is happy to find excuses to conspire with him whenever possible. Before long, Gloria has rented a house in Cold Spring Harbor and persuaded Evan and Rachel to move in with her to save money (a baby is on the way by this point), and Rachel’s younger brother Phil is away at boarding school but comes home on occasion to advance the plot in intriguing ways with his social awkwardness and wealthy friends.
For the most part, I’ve told you everything you need to know about the plot – although, of course, there’s more, and Yates does a fantastic job of developing his characters – even minor ones – in ways that make them seem beautifully human. The plot is entirely effortless and organic and grows out of that initial meeting of Charles, Evan, Gloria, and Rachel, but of course it has far-reaching implications that eventually take in Phil, his friends, Gloria’s first husband Curtis, Charles’ wife Grace, and Evan’s first wife Mary and their daughter Kathleen. Certain patterns repeat themselves throughout this novel – patterns of discontent and the acceptance of discontent within marriage, especially when it comes to stoic and steady husbands consoling, managing, and enabling their hysterical wives. All of these characters, whether married or not, seem to live in the wakes of fractured happiness – their own or that of someone else. And there is a sort of Gatsby-like quality to that state, although Yates’ characters are more ready than Fitzgerald’s to accept that they are never going to be able to reach out their hands and touch whatever green lights they are aiming for.
Yates’ writing is fantastic, as always. I’ve been a fan of his short stories for years, ever since his Collected Stories was published in 1999, and I read and loved Revolutionary Road years ago too, but overall I think I stayed away from his novels – with that one exception – because there is something so Cheever-like about Yates’ stories that I think I just assumed on some subconscious level that his novels would disappoint me as much as Cheever’s do – but that assumption was so wrong. And of course, both Cheever and Yates are literary heirs of Fitzgerald in terms of their prose style and themes – not to mention their tendency to write about the inhabitants of Long Island – so maybe I need to take back what I said in the first paragraph about this book being nothing like The Great Gatsby. Maybe my initial reaction was right and the kinship is real.
For example, there’s this passage, from a moment when Evan takes Rachel on their first date and they park on a side road where they can see a view of New York City: “It was something, all right. The unimaginable skyline of New York, seen from this cliff across the Hudson, was more than enough to take your breath away. It let you know at once that all those yellow- and orange- and red-struck towers, with their numberless blazing windows, were there for better reasons than commerce; they were there for you, as if you’d wished them into being, and their higher purpose was to enhance your aspirations and accommodate your dreams” (32).
What is it about New York? I like that city well enough – it’s probably the best place in the world to go for long walks – but I’ve never bought into its mystique, and I certainly have never felt that it was put on earth especially for me. If anything, I’ve always wondered why the Yateses and Cheevers and Fitzgeralds and J.D. Salingers of the world never write about the way it smells – that uniquely New York smell that my brain has always categorized as “high-pitched,” which I know is synaesthesia, of which hot dogs and urine always seem to be two of its many, many ingredients. I don’t find New York City “magical” or “enchanted,” not at all, but I also have always felt that I am secretly missing out on something by finding it to be, overall, a very ordinary place.
Maybe there’s still hope. Maybe I can still find a way to initiate myself into the worship of New York. And if there is, the first step is probably to read some more Richard Yates – a prospect that I don’t mind at all.