This is a very detailed review. This novel is character-driven and not the sort that is driven by suspense, but if you do not want to read “spoilers,” I recommend that you avoid this review.
What a strange, complicated, and sometimes maddening novel this is. Richard Yates is a writer I trust implicitly, and Disturbing the Peace is certainly well done. I associate Yates in my mind with John Cheever, partly because their fiction deals with the same demographic (the unhappy upwardly-mobile middle class in and around New York City in the mid-twentieth century) but also because I discovered both writers around the same time, and my model of what short stories are meant to be is very much derived from the work of both Yates and Cheever. For a long time I avoided Yates’ novels because Cheever’s are unreadable (they really are – they’re terrible!), but when I decided to give them a chance I was well rewarded. Disturbing the Peace goes to places Cheever never ventures (e.g. mental hospitals and California), and I want to say that Yates writes a more diverse cast of characters than Cheever ever does, though I should probably do some research before I make that sort of statement. But then again, this is the internet. Making that sort of statement without doing research is what the internet does best.
In the novel’s opening scene, Janice Wilder calls Paul Borg to say that her husband John just called to say that he can’t come home after his business trip because he is afraid he might kill Janice and the couple’s ten year-old son Tommy. After he makes the phone call, he sits in a bar and drinks until Paul, alerted by Janice, finds him and – after a series of events that determine Paul’s options – checks him into the psych ward at Bellevue Hospital. It’s worth mentioning that while John Wilder is the protagonist, this novel is bookended with scenes about Janice and Paul. In the opening scene, I did sense a closeness between these two friends that seemed possibly adulterous, but at this point Janice and Paul are each married to someone else. Paul’s wife Natalie is part of the discussion, and of course the subject matter of the discussion is Janice’s husband John. By the last chapter, Paul and Janice are married. I am not entirely sure why Yates structured the novel in this way. It stands out as odd, but not in a bad way.
At times this novel seems like a pastiche of various works from pop culture. The scene that unfolds in the Bellevue psych ward, for example, is straight out of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Nurse Ratched figure is replaced by the much-more-sympathetic Charlie, but the language and imagery of the scene is straight out of Kesey. Disturbing the Peace was published in 1975. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest was published in 1962, and the film adaptation of Kesey’s novel was released in November of 1975 (this correspondence between the publication date of Disturbing the Peace and the release date of the Cuckoo’s Nest movie becomes VERY interesting in just a moment – stay tuned). I can’t imagine any scenario in which Yates did not consciously consider Cuckoo’s Nest when he was writing this novel. Even though he must have written the novel a year or more before its 1975 publication, it’s unfathomable that Yates wouldn’t have known Kesey’s novel.
Wilder’s primary problem is alcoholism. When he called his wife from the bar to say he couldn’t come home, he had spent a week in Chicago on a business trip, during which he could not sleep, drank constantly, and had frequent sex with a young woman he picked up at the hotel. He is trapped in the well-documented cycle of using alcohol and sex as a means to try to get real, restorative sleep, and predictably neither strategy works. Wilder is an advertising salesman, which means that unlike Don Draper and the rest of the Mad Men folks, Wilder works for a magazine (American Scientist) and sells ad space to companies. Over time we learn that Wilder was the only child of an entrepreneurial couple who founded a successful chocolate company that they hoped to pass on to their son. Wilder served in the war, though his experience is not documented in detail, and then went to Yale but flunked out after two years because he couldn’t keep up with the reading and ended up in a cycle of sleeplessness and anxiety not too terribly different from the one he experiences in the novel’s present-time plot. His parents would have been happy to bequeath the chocolate company to him anyway, Yale or no Yale, but he had a strongly negative reaction to that career path, and his parents ended up hiring an assistant who then inherited the business. It’s hard to say why Wilder felt such antipathy for the chocolate trade: the problem seems to be a combination of resentment toward his parents (he seems almost to feel “sibling rivalry” toward his parents’ all-consuming enterprise), fear of failure, and perhaps a desire to rise above his parents’ station in life uncoupled with a realistic understanding of how to do so. Nevertheless, he has been successful as an advertising salesman. He has a nice New York apartment, a country house, and a secret apartment that he shares with good old double-agent Paul Borg – his co-conspirator as well as his wife’s – for secret dalliances with women.
Everything I’ve described above is very Mad Men, of course. It’s always interesting when a work of literature seems to be a source piece for another work of art (film, TV series, etc.) that was created later. There are a variety of reasons this could happen. First of all, both works could capture the zeitgeist so successfully that they seem interrelated when in fact they are not. Second, one work could truly be a source text for the other. I have no doubt that the creators of Mad Men steeped themselves in the literature of the advertising world of New York City in the early 1960’s, and it’s entirely possible they read this novel and used it to craft their characters. I believe that this novel was out of print until its 2009 re-release, which is nothing a library card couldn’t fix, of course. Finally, what seems like cross-pollination could be mere coincidence, which is disappointing though possible.
As a condition of his release from Bellevue, John Wilder has to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Blomberg, who insists on hours of talk therapy and refers John to AA and to a sponsor named Bill Costello. After trying out sobriety for a few hours, John discovers that AA meetings make for a clever excuse to get out of the house and visit his secret apartment, and he soon develops a serious relationship with a woman named Pamela, whom he meets at work. Pamela is a year or two out of college – a hilariously-rendered fictional Vermont liberal arts college called Melville – and when John shares his Bellevue story with Pamela, she contacts a few college friends and they decide to make a movie based on John’s experience (this is where the connection to the 1975 release of the film adaptation of Cuckoo’s Nest starts to get interesting, no?). Like Pamela, her friends are young, affluent, entitled, full of themselves, and quite intelligent and creative – and soon they have written a screenplay and hired a team of actors and John is inventing a two-week business trip as an excuse to go to Vermont with Pamela to film the movie on the campus of Melville College, where they have arranged to use a huge empty barn that is meant as a convertible, multi-purpose space for student creative projects.
Occasionally in the early chapters of the novel John muses about the fact that he had “always wanted” to make movies – which is to say that he fantasized about doing so but never really took steps to achieve this goal. He knows he isn’t especially creative, but he imagines himself as a producer – as the glue that holds the creative, technological, and financial parts of film production together. At Melville, he gets a chance to sample life as a “producer.” The young director and actors treat him with respect, listen to his input, and admire his courage for sharing his story and allowing them to film it. One of John’s suggestions is to integrate the heavy-handed crucifixion imagery that was not present in Yates’ description of Bellevue but is present in Cuckoo’s Nest, both novel and film. In reality, though, John is not ready to see the men’s psych ward at Bellevue Hospital re-created before his eyes, and he becomes a bit unhinged. He becomes paranoid about Pamela, whose reunion with her college friends involves lots of physical affection. He has long since abandoned psychoanalysis and AA. He becomes fixated on a philosophy professor with wild white hair whom the Melville alums call “God” (a fantastic portrayal of a certain breed of professor), and one day he takes off though the woods to find “God” (whose real name is Professor Epstein), and along the way he becomes convinced that he is Jesus. He starts speaking in famous movie quotations (a “game” he played with other patients at Bellevue), and eventually he ends up in a phone booth in the middle of nowhere, where in between composing rhythmic religious poetry he calls random numbers and asks the strangers who answer the phone, “Are you my mother?” Epstein intervenes and arranges for John to be admitted to a small rural hospital, where he is detoxed, re-hydrated, and released with the phone number of a New York psychiatrist named Dr. Brink (good name choice, no?), who is a pioneer in the use of psychoactive medications (and now is the time when the whole 21st century moans in unison).
Armed with a veritable Rolodex of prescriptions, John goes back to New York, and for a while his marriage to Janice seems to be on the mend. In typical Yates’ fashion, his reunion with Janice is described as follows: “He thought of Pamela only fleetingly as [he and Janice] rolled and locked; then he put her out of his mind. All that was over. This was probably where he belonged” (194). Pamela, incidentally, has moved to Washington, D.C. with a famous novelist that she met through a Melville connection who has recently been hired to serve as one of Bobby Kennedy’s speechwriters. It is during this period that John F. Kennedy is assassinated, and here’s John Wilder’s reaction to watching the coverage on television: “Later in the afternoon there were scenes of the Dallas police hustling a suspect named Oswald into jail – all you could see of him was that he was scrawny and wore a T-shirt – and of a righteous cop holding up a scope-sighted rifle to the cameras. Only then did Wilder realize what he felt, and it sent him to the kitchen for a secret nip of the whiskey Janice kept for guests. He felt sympathy for the assassin and he felt he understood the motives. Kennedy had been too young, too rich, too handsome, and too lucky; he had embodied elegance and wit and finesse. His murderer had spoken for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance, and John Wilder understood these forces all too well. He almost felt he pulled the trigger himself” (196). The italics above are mine. What a sentence. What a fucking sentence.
Soon Pamela comes back to New York. Her speechwriter boyfriend dissolved into alcoholism much as John did, and Pamela’s father has agreed to finance her desire to go to Hollywood and make movies. She wants John to go with her and he agrees. Armed with the script of “Bellevue” and the uncut footage from Vermont, they fly directly into Los Angeles precisely as depicted in Mad Men. Palm trees abound, and everything is “melon-colored.” The whole place looks like the Long Beach airport. From here on out, the novel reminded me a great deal of Chocolates for Breakfast (chocolates!) by Pamela Moore (Pamela!), a 1956 novel that has only recently been re-released but that Yates could easily have known – it’s about a young woman and her pathetic mother who drink themselves into oblivion in melon-colored Los Angeles a couple of decades before 1975. I’m not making a claim that Moore’s novel is a source for Yates’, but it was certainly on my mind as I read the last third of Disturbing the Peace.
John continues to decline in Los Angeles, of course, and soon Pamela leaves him and he spends an unspecified amount of time in his apartment, drinking and calling people on the phone. It’s interesting that each of John’s hospitalizations (number three is coming up) happens shortly after one or more phone calls. In this case, he becomes convinced that he is “wanted” for something (he continues to express his sympathy for Oswald), and he calls various people in an attempt to turn himself in. He is still drinking and taking an alarming number of psych meds, and eventually he cuts the phone line in his apartment, convinced that he will “save” people by doing so. After an unspecified amount of time, his neighbors call a doctor and John is hospitalized again.
At this point the novel’s focus shifts away from John and toward a sort of “This is Your Life” parade of the novel’s minor characters. Pamela reunites with her former paramour the novelist, who has discovered AA via John’s old sponsor, Bill Costello (a detail that seems overdone), and Janice and Borg re-appear as man and wife. Substantial time has passed. On a vacation in California, Janice visits John in the hospital in what is clearly an attempt at “closure.” John at this point is totally transformed. He is not quite the lobotomized McMurphy, but he’s radically changed – and he may well have received a less-catastrophic version of the same procedure, though 1975 is a bit late for lobotomies. He has become a simple, content man, happy with his circumscribed life playing on the mental hospital’s softball team and making bookcases in the woodworking shop. It’s a tragic ending but not an especially sad one, since John is better off in this state than he was at any other point in the novel, when he was so needlessly tortured. I breathed a sigh of relief at the end, not only because John no longer seems to be suffering but also on behalf of the minor characters, who can go on with their lives in peace. This novel is a compelling indictment of alcoholism (though sobriety isn’t made out to be much of alternative either) and – like Mad Men, like Cheever’s stories, like Cuckoo’s Nest – it draws attention to the hollow core of American affluence and the culture of conformity. It is highly readable and bears up under examination – perfect for a book club or mid-length flight. Even after writing this review, I remain fascinated with the idea that Yates may have written this novel not only in response to Cuckoo’s Nest the novel (which I take as a given) but in response to the filming of Cuckoo’s Nest, which would have been in progress during the same time period that Yates was writing this novel (presuming he wrote it just before its 1975 publication, which I’m sure he did). Cameras are everywhere in this novel, and while alcoholism and anxiety trigger John’s first hospitalization, from there on out it is the experience of being seen and filmed and studied and watched (while also participating in the studying and watching and filming) that furthers his decline. Not all of the parts of this novel hold together. I’m not sure what to do with the Jesus imagery or with the return of Bill Costello or with the way the novel begins and ends with Janice and Borg. But it’s okay with me when a novel leaves a few puzzle pieces unused at the end.