10 July 2012


This one time, I read a Richard Yates novel and was surprised how depressing it was. I must be really off my game right now.

I had set a goal a few years ago to read all of Yates after loving REVOLUTIONARY ROAD (a dysfunctional relationship, perhaps) and my plan is to drop one of his novels onto my library request list every so often when I'm not using one of my precious 15 holds. I didn't know anything more about it when I picked up my library paperback than that it was Yates' second novel, not the ideal way to go into it for reasons I think will be clear.

First of our surprises: this is primarily a war novel, following young Robert Prentice who turns 18 and enlists at the tail end of World War II. Feeling mediocre in all things, Robert goes to war with dreams of a tight bond with his fellow soldiers and the noble sacrifice of battle, only to get bogged down in the dirt (literal and metaphorical) of the Army's engagement abroad. He discovers that he's not really good at the day-to-day work of being a soldier at the inopportune moment of landing in Europe, and then he's really stuck

Intercut with the parade of humiliations that is Robert's service, the indomitable spirit of his mother, Alice, looks like a pie-eyed view of the world, then an outright rejection of any of its truths. Alice divorced Robert's father when he was very young because she felt that he was stifling her artistic career (first a graphic designer, then a sculptor). Her belief that she can support the family on her art if she just gets that one big break leads her to fall deeper and deeper into debt as she moves around the New York City suburbs trying to find the right place to be "inspired." This conviction is similar to April Wheeler's in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, but April has no power and Alice has wrested it for herself.

Because of their early struggles, Robert and Alice are really too close as mother and son, and the war hurridly creates for them the boundaries they should have had all along. In a way, Robert drinks from the same well of potential hope as his mother, just thousands of miles away. Alice is steadfast in her belief that she's just a "one man show" away from making it, well into middle age, but Robert envisions war heroics as an eraser ridding himself of the shame of growing up poor and picked on; he just finds out right away that it's not going to be like that. Yates loves this topic (earlier this year I read his story "The Canal," treading similar territory); of course, Frank Wheeler was also a World War II vet. The brutality of the humiliation in A SPECIAL PROVIDENCE, though, is arguably worse than the actual acts of war themselves, and it never seems to let up on Robert.

If you've recently read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD I think you'll find this a satisfying deep cut, with a very odd jag into Westchester County society in the 1930s. Zadie Smith compared it to BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY'S mixed with ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, and damn, don't I wish I had thought of that first.

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