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Many novels begin with a bit of introductory material that takes the reader up to the point where the story proper begins. In Emma, a few paragraphs suffice to get Miss Taylor married and the ball rolling. In The Eustace Diamonds, the action starts at the fifth chapter. In Richard Yates's The Easter Parade, however, the story proper never quite begins — and that is the exquisitely sad point of the novel.
The book's opening is one of the most deflated in literature: "Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce. That happened in 1930..." We're not told who, exactly, is doing the looking back, but we forget that uncertainty as soon as we hear about the divorce — in 1930! Looking back, parents divorcing in 1930 might almost be thought guilty of child abuse.
As for the unhappiness, it seems never to materialize, either. Nothing "bad" happens. Notably, though, nothing very good happens, either, and happiness certainly fails to materialize. Sarah, the elder sister, marries and has three boys, while Emily, the "smart" kid as well as the novel's center, finds satisfaction, for a time, in an advertising career, as well as in a series of lovers. All of this, however, evaporates. Sarah, having become an alcoholic, slips and falls — and dies. Emily loses her job and her last long-term lover — and fears that she may lose her mind. The Easter Parade closes on an ambiguous note, from which readers will be free to prognosticate, altogether inconclusively, according to their inclinations.
The story of the Grimes sisters is about a story that never takes shape. Nothing comes of anything; there is no monument, no "there, I did that." Sarah, of course, has her children, but they seem to raise themselves, and they turn out almost strangely. The barely concealed expectation that good social connections will pay off sooner or later is never gratified. Tony, Sarah's husband, is a tour de force of disappointment. Here he is at the start:
Tony Wilson was of medium height, broad-shouldered and well-built; his wavy brown hair was carelessly arranged across his forehead and around the ears; his mouth was full and humorous and his eyes seemed always to be laughing at some subtle private joke that he might tell you when you got to know him better. He was twenty-three years old.
Twenty-three and an apprentice engineer, Tony has attended an English public school, but his American parents, clearly on the way down, have had to retreat from their investments abroad. We're told that he looks like Laurence Olivier. He obviously has the manner of a glamorpuss. But — an apprentice engineer. He will spend his life building airplanes at a Long Island factory. Here he is at the end, married to the bustling proprietor of a dinky restaurant:
The restaurant's sign promised STEAK and LOBSTERS and COCKTAILS, but it had a dreary look: the paint was flaking off its white clapboard front, and its windows were too small. It was the kind of place that a hungry man and woman in a car might spend several minutes considering ("Whaddya think?" "Well, I don't know; it looks sort of awful. Maybe there'll be a better place further on." "Honey, I've told you: there won't be anything else for miles." "Oh, well, in that case — sure; what the hell.")
Peter parked in the weed-grown gravel of its parking lot and led Emily around behind the building to a wooden staircase that led up to a second-story door.
"Dad?" he called. "You home?"
And there was Tony Wilson, looking like an aging, bewildered Laurence Olivier as he opened the flimsy door and let them in. "I say," he said. "Hello, Emmy."
The small apartment had a makeshift look...
"Makeshift" is the mot juste. Emily's life, we see in retrospect, has been entirely makeshift. Her one solid achievement, having been awarded a full scholarship, has been to graduate from Barnard. If nothing else, The Easter Parade obliges us to reflect that a degree from an excellent school assures nothing; it only makes things possible. And that is where Emily Grimes seems to live: in possibility.
Alone and safe behind her own locked door, she took pleasure in finding that everything in her home was clean. She spent half an hour soaping and scrubbing herself in the shower, and while there she began to remember the events of the night. She had gone to the apartment of a married couple she scarcely knew, in the East Sixties, and it had turned out to be a bigger, noisier party than she'd expected — that accounted for the nervousness that had made her drink too fast. She closed her eyes under the pelting of hot water and recalled a sea of talking, laughing people out of which several strangers' faces came up close: a jolly bald man who said the whole preposterous idea of Kennedy for President had been a triumph of money and public relations; a thin, dapper fellow in an expensive suit who said "I understand you're in the ad game too"; and the man who was probably the one she'd slept with, whose earnest voice had talked to her for what seemed like hours and whose plain, heavy-browed face was very likely the face she had studied this morning. But she couldn't remember his name. Ned? Ted? It was something like that.
She put on clean, comfortable clothes and drank coffee — she would have loved a beer but was afraid to open one — and was just beginning to enjoy a sense of her life's coming back to solidity when the telephone rang.
Emily will learn from the phone call that her mother has had a sort of stroke. This requires a trip out to Long Island, where Pookie — Emily's mother, we learn on the first page "encouraged both girls to call her 'Pookie'" — has been living in a garage apartment at the Wilsons' "estate," a tumbledown place that she herself christened "Great Hedges." Yates's description of the making arrangements for Pookie's care with Sarah is both realistic and nightmarish. Over drinks (naturally), Sarah brings Emily up to date on her eldest boy, Tony Junior.
"He must have finished high school last year."
"That's right; except the thing is he didn't graduate."
"Oh? You mean his grades weren't good enough?"
"That's right. Oh, he could have graduated, but he spent practically the whole year running around with this — haven't I told you ab out that?"
"A girl, you mean?"
"She's not a girl, that's the whole point. She's thirty-give years old. She's divorced and she's rich and she's ruining him. Ruining him. I can't even talk to him anymore, and neither can his father."
Emily is so relieved to get back to her clean, quiet apartment that she tells Ted — his name turns out to be Ted — that he can come right over. The cruelest thing about Yates's writing is that we don't see this invitation for the mistake that it is. We will learn, later, that Emily and Ted eventually agree not to see one another because they always drink too much when they do. Right now, though, we're with Emily in her nice apartment, which seems safe as houses. Emily is above all a sensible girl, someone whose head is screwed onto her shoulders, &c &c. And yet the rare flash of light illuminating the reality behind her worldliness can be wrenching. Here, for example, is Emily at the end of her one long-term relationship:
It took only a couple of days for Howard to move his belongings out of the apartment. He was very apologetic about everything. Only once, when he flicked the heavy silken rope of his neckties out of the closet, was there any kind of a scene, and that turned into such a dreadful squalid scene — it ended with her falling on her knees to embrace his legs and begging him, begging him to stay — that Emily did the best she could to put it out of her mind.
The possibility, with Howard, was always that he would fall out of love with his second wife, a much younger woman who left him shortly before he took up with Emily. His rebound lasts six or seven years before proving to be exactly that — a rebound. One might read The Easter Parade as a tract on the fragility of status and security in America, especially the fragility of a woman's status and security. But the novel is more persuasive, as well as more engaging, as a portrait of women who simply don't feel the need to take anything too seriously. Without being flip, vulgar, or hollow, they are nevertheless heedless, and eventually they must suffer the fate of Aesop's grasshopper. About this, Richard Yates is remorseless. (August 2008)
Copyright (c) 2008 Pourover Press