American Literature Month: ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ by Richard Yates ***

The Times calls Yates ‘the most perceptive author of the twentieth century’; a high accolade indeed, but one which I think he deserves.  I so enjoy his novels, and had high hopes for his short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, which I borrowed from the library.

The eleven stories here – all of which first found their homes in magazines such as Cosmopolitan and Esquire – were written between 1951 and 1961, and were published together in 1962, just a year after the stunning Revolutionary Road.  Within this collection, ‘Yates creates a haunting mosaic of the 1950s, the era when the American dream was finally coming true – and just beginning to ring a little hollow’.  Kurt Vonnegut, himself a prominent author within the twentieth century’s American literature scene, deems this ‘one of the ten best short-story collections ever written by an American’.

As the title suggests, these stories are all character studies, each of which examine different degrees of loneliness or solitude.  Yates picks up on interesting details from the very start, particularly with regard to his characters’ features.  In ‘Doctor Jack-o’Lantern’, ‘the roots of his teeth were green’, and ‘A Glutton for Punishment’ begins: ‘For a little while when Walter Henderson was nine years old he thought falling dead was the very zenith of romance, and so did a number of his friends’.  Some of the moments which he captures are sublime.  For instance, in the tale entitled ‘No Pain Whatsoever’, a young woman named Myra visits her husband, a long-term hospital resident.  In our first glimpse of him, he is ‘sitting up, cross-legged, frowning over something in his lap’.  Yates goes on to describe that ‘sometimes they kissed on the lips, but you weren’t supposed to’; a rebellious act of love to save some semblance of a normal relationship.

As with his novels, Yates sets scenes masterfully.  ‘Doctor Jack-o’Lantern’, for example, begins in the following way: ‘All Miss Price had been told about the new boy was that he’d spent most of his life in some kind of orphanage, and that the grey-haired “aunt and uncle” with whom he now lived were really foster parents, paid by the Welfare Department of the city of New York.  A less dedicated or less imaginative teacher might have pressed for more details, but Miss Price was content with the rough outline.  It was enough, in fact, to fill her with a sense of mission that shone from her eyes, as plain as love, from the first morning he joined the fourth grade’.  New York, too, the city in which the majority of the tales take place, is perfectly sculpted.  The same story describes the way in which: ‘Clearly he was from the part of New York that you had to pass through on the train to Grand Central – the part where people hung bedding over their windowsills and leaned out on straight, deep streets, one after another, all alike in the clutter of their sidewalks and swarming with gray boys at play in some desperate kind of ball game’.

As I tend to find with single-author short story collections, some of the tales here were far stronger and more compelling than others.  It can certainly be said that each, however, is a perfectly created and easy to visualise slice of life.  Both the first and third person perspectives have been used, and each of the characters are vastly different from one another, both of which serve to create a varied collection.  I am of the opinion though that Yates seems more at home with novel-length works; there were a few instances in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness which felt rushed over, or not written about to the full extent that one already familiar with his work would expect.  Sadly, the collection was not as good as I thought it would be.

Purchase from The Book Depository

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