Richard Yates has served as a beacon to writers like Richard Ford and Raymond Carver. His debut novel, Revolutionary Road, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Alas, while writers and critics loved his work—Richard Russo, Dorothy Parker, Tennessee Williams and Robert Stone all wrote blurbs of unabashed adoration—none of his books sold well in his lifetime. I cannot explain that--Revolutionary Road is a stunning work of literary realism that shines unflinching light on the untold realities of so much domestic life in the 1950’s. It has often been described as part of the inspiration for “Mad Men” but has none of the schmaltzy bling.
I found A Special Providence, Yates’s second novel, while loitering in one of our local used books store. I began reading with the expectation that it would be a minor piece compared to Revolutionary Road, but was delighted to find out how wrong I’d been. This, too, is a Great American Novel.
The exquisite Prologue: 1944 sets up the characters who will drive the story, in twenty pages that could stand alone as their own short story.
Part One is the story of young Robert Prentice’s induction into the army in World War II, making his way in a rifle platoon that is eventually headed overseas, preparing to fight a war that won’t end soon enough to save him from that. Robert is a hopeful young man, and makes friends with soldiers named Quint and Logan, one of whom he idolizes until combat brings out the worst in him. Prentice has become ill, and Logan can’t see or doesn’t care about it.
Part Two gives us Robert’s youthful backstory, and the tale of the principal second character, his divorced mother. Alice Prentice is an artist and sculptor with unrealistic hopes and dreams that always have her too far out over her skis. Expectations that could never pan out fuel her ambitions. With a backstory of tragedy far greater than her recent divorce, she is unhinged and untethered to reality, and Bobby is carried along into one unstable living situation after another. Denied opportunities to form stable and lasting friendships, he grows into the soldier we’ve seen in Part One, eager to be one of the guys. The plot turn that closes Part Two is one we don’t see coming, though we’ve worried for Alice all along; and it sets up an echo later in the novel that helps Robert make it through a dark time on the battlefield.
In Part Three we learn that Robert, who joined the fighting just after the Battle of the Bulge, was coming down with pneumonia when last we saw him in Part One. He has spent five weeks in hospital, which “became an exquisitely peaceful time for Prentice, a time of warm sponge baths and clean sheets, of low, courteous voices and regular meals.” On discharge, checking through a depot to get back to the 57th Division, he’s happy to have a uniform that’s dirty enough to make him at least look authentic even though his time in combat has so far been limited. And his only real buddy, Quint, is gone. We are given Robert’s first experiences in combat, where he fights his own insecurities and struggles to feel he measures up to the soldiers around him.
The Epilogue:1946 brings us back to Alice, whose lofty goals and expectations have her waiting for something few artists achieve. The last page is a shocker, so entirely unexpected, so simple and yet so true, it cannot be given away in a review.
Real people, thoroughly rendered inside and out, jump off every page. The war years are drawn as perhaps only one who was there can manage; and yet, like Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, it’s less the battles than the interpersonal dynamics of those fighting it that drive the story.
I’ll leave you with this, from Richard Russo’s Introduction to the 2001 Collected Stories of Richard Yates:
“Yates has been described as a writer’s writer by people who consider that a high compliment, but I suspect Yates himself would have understood that the phrase trails an unintended insult by suggesting that only other writers are sophisticated enough to appreciate his many gifts. The truth is that Richard Yates is not a sophisticated writer. He doesn’t need to be; he’s far too talented to have much use for either smoke or mirrors.”
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .