Disturbing the reader

With the renewed interest in the once “forgotten” American novelist Richard Yates, it’s worth noting that the library has excellent Vintage Books reprints of his novels and collections of short stories. If you have read Revolutionary Road and/or seen the film you’llknow that his take on postwar American middle class life is one of disillusion and no happy endings.

I’ve just finished reading his third novel, Disturbing the peace, (1975) and it makes Revolutionary Road seem like a Mitch Albom novel (well, not really, it’s on a different plane entirely as far as quality goes). It has strong autobiographical elements in it as it is about an alcoholic whose addiction takes him to the depths. The main character is a successful advertising salesman with a house in the country, an adoring and long suffering wife, a young son and what is on the surface a charmed life.

It’s easy with a book like this to think his feelings of failure and disenchantment with his life are pampered self indulgence in a world where millions can only dream of such an existence. It’s the success of the novel that the main protagonist (who treats his family badly, feels superior to his friends and has a young mistress who he regularly visits when he is supposed to be at A.A. meetings) is a man who the reader can understand and even sympathise with even though he is pretty appalling.

Drink is probably only a symptom of his unhappy life but it’s a powerful one and the novel has one part where he becomes delusional and is committed at one stage to a very grim psychiatric ward and a later one where madness takes over and his life spirals completely out of control. This is dark material but it’s brilliantly observed (characterisation and a sense of place are two of this author’s greatest gifts) and it may be one of the toughest novels written about alcoholism. Read it – and then take on something lighter afterwards – but not the likes of Mitch Albom or Nicholas Sparks who’ll make you go right to the drinks cabinet.

One thought on “Disturbing the reader

  1. Michael A 16 February 2009 / 10:11 am

    A much overlooked author in this genre is Philip K. Dick (he of “Do Andoids Dream of Electric Sheep” fame)who had a series of middle america novels – Confessions of a Crap Artist, Puttering about in a small land, In Milton Lumpky Territory, Humpty Dumpty in Oakland, Mary & the Giant. Only one was published in his lifetime – much neglected but well worth a read.

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