Magazine article The Spectator

A Member of the Awkward Squad

Magazine article The Spectator

A Member of the Awkward Squad

Article excerpt

A SPECIAL PROVIDENCE by Richard Yates Methuen, £7.99, pp. 304, ISBN 0413775194 . £6.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

On an autumn Saturday in 1944 Private Robert Prentice, an 18-year-old rifleman trainee, makes a long journey from his camp in Virginia to New York City, to see his mother. He is soon to be sent abroad, France most likely, and there he'll see action, which will at least be a change from tedious, thankless camp duties. 'Oh, Bobby!' exclaims his ageing mother as she greets him. 'My soldier! My big, wonderful soldier!' A touching tableau, one would think, except that it's riddled with falsity. Alice Prentice is a self-centred, self-indulgent, attitudinising spendthrift, who will occupy herself during Bobby's long and endangered absence with plans for him to rescue her from an indigence largely her own fault. And Bobby himself -- who perhaps would have preferred losing his virginity in some whorehouse to traipsing up to New York -- is no model soldier either. A gangly six foot three, he is decidedly clumsy, and slow on the uptake whenever orders are given him. He asks questions of everybody like a boy younger even than his years, rubbing people's backs up in the process.

He was no success as a pupil, despite his mother's having sent him to a good school, the fees for which she couldn't always pay. His army career seems set to be equally undistinguished -- or worse.

This situation is of Richard Yates' very essence. In each of his enthralling novels quick with humanity he gives us people who, however hard they try to live up to codes of society's making and to ideals of their own, come up against obstinate elements in their personalities which threaten to depose both of these. In Yates' first novel, Revolutionary Road (1961) -- which now seems to have regained the classic status it once deservedly enjoyed -- Frank and April Wheeler sustain for a surprisingly long time two conflicting images of how their married life should be, for neither of which are they qualified. They are too ordinary to justify any picture of themselves as dissidents from the suburbia they elected to join; on the other hand private miseries dating back to earliest years mar all attempts at being a copybook couple. In what is for me Yates' subtlest novel, Cold Spring Harbor (1986), two young brothers-in-law compete for the rewards due to the conventionally successful male in a dysfunctional family. Lack of brains hampers the one, an unresolved sexual prurience the other, and there's little either can do about this. …

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