I absolutely love what I have read of Yates’ work so far, and could not wait to begin Cold Spring Harbor, the 54th book on my Classics Club list. Cold Spring Harbor is one of his much later books, first published in 1986, and dedicated to Kurt Vonnegut.
Cold Spring Harbor is the small Long Island village in which much of the novel takes place. The story’s beginning felt fresh and almost F. Scott Fitzgerald-esque: ‘All the sorrows of Evan Shepard’s loutish adolescence were redeemed at seventeen, in 1935, when he fell in love with automobiles. His persistent bullying of weaker boys, his thick-witted ways of offending girls, his inept and embarrassing ventures into petty crime – none of those things mattered any more, except as bad memories’. Yates goes on to set out Evan’s character immediately, as well as the ways in which he is perceived by those around him: ‘And it was always a pleasure for his father, Charles Shepard, just to stand at a window and watch him working alone out there in the sun. Nobody could have guessed a year ago that this particular boy would ever learn to organize and focus his mind on a useful job of work; and wasn’t that the beginning of maturity? Wasn’t it what helped a man develop will and purpose in his life?’
Yates does not just focus upon Evan (of whom he writes ‘it didn’t seem right for anyone so splendid-looking to have so little going on in his head’); rather, he gives us the history of the Shepard family in a thorough yet succinct manner. He strikes a wonderful balance between Evan’s parents; his father’s stint in the army and his mother Grace’s nerves giving way prevail. One gets the impression immediately that Yates knows everything about his characters, and the things which matter to them the most: ‘At certain moments, if the light and the alcohol worked to her advantage, Grace could still be the prettiest girl at the Officers’ Club dance’. Charles’ perception of his wife is as follows: ‘Most of the time – this afternoon, for example – he found he would rather not look at her at all because she would only look ruined: heavy, dissatisfied, apparently grieving in silence for the loss of herself’.
A hurried marriage soon ensues for Evan with a girl from school, Mary Donovan, who had ‘the kind of pretty gace that other girls called “saucy”‘. Yates describes the way in which ‘it was a marriage that might have occurred much later, when they were both a few years older, if Mary hadn’t found she was pregnant in the very early months of their romance’. Both are unhappy almost from the word go: ‘Oh, if it weren’t for the burden of knowing Evan adored her, that he’d be terribly lost without her – if it weren’t for that, she knew she would now be putting her mind to finding some way out of all this’.
When the Shepard’s car breaks down in an unfamiliar part of New York, they call upon a woman named Gloria Drake, who lives in a nearby house, in order to use her telephone. It is here that Evan meets her daughter, Rachel, whom he swiftly falls in love with: ‘She was herself: a little thin and soft, but with a wonderful look of having nearly come to life… this was a girl you could cherish and protect’.
Cold Spring Harbor is incredibly well crafted, and deals, above all, with human emotion and the relationships which we forge with one another. Yates also demonstrates the way in which circumstances can alter people almost unrecognisably. He is startlingly perceptive throughout, and one of the main strengths of the novel is the way in which he views the same event from so many different angles.