It’s a funny thing to bring preconceived notions to a book, and I feel like I brought a rather hefty set of baggage to Easter Parade. In the first place, I have a ridiculously high opinion of Revolutionary Road and Yates’ insight and craftsmanship in the stories of Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. From there, I know that he turned into a wreck of sorts, and spent the 60s and most of the 70s, civil rights speeches for Bobby Kennedy aside, stumbling drunkenly towards increasing obscurity and futility. He maintained his craftsmanship but his production was a trickle, and he never came close to finding an audience. And then he went on a surprising late run and turned out a few more books in his last years, none of them as accomplished as RevRoad, but not unworthy, just not anything that would generate a breakthrough to wider recognition and fortune. And the general idea is that Easter Parade is the most solid and satisfying of Yates’ later work, so it seemed to be a good place to continue reading him.
So I think it might have been this “baggage” that made me think of EP as rather slight, having a persistent notion that it was never going to measure up to RevRoad or amount to much. But in considering it now, this “slightness” and lack of heft are odd entryways to anything Yates might put his stamp on. The slightness is there initially in Easter Parade, as we move quickly through the childhood, early loves and lives of sisters Sarah and Emily, and it takes the form of accessibility. The story here isn’t going to be a tumultuous year that ends in death and despair (as in RevRoad), but it will instead be a midcentury panorama, two sisters coming of age just after WW2 and pursuing contrasting paths through adulthood in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. The story moves along, but one can’t call it brisk or bracing, and it is anything but breezy. The term that seems to capture the general impression created by Yates is devastation, which of course hardly melds with slightness or accessibility, but perhaps that just shows the deft touch of the master. Yates sets up fully rounded characters with telling details and bits of aspiration and flawed self-knowledge, and then he goes on to show how American lives are essentially empty and hopeless, employing a scorched earth policy towards any sort of ambition or fulfillment. So that makes Easter Parade relatively “slight” somehow in its absolute devastation and gathering, inexorable pessimism. So be it.
Upon reflection, interesting elements abound in EP. The sibling relationship stands out and is quite complex, an extremely sophisticated equation, and it is deepened by the fact that we’re watching two women navigate the postwar evolution of women’s roles. And like so many women of that generation, both of them turn out to be wildly unsuccessful. The younger daughter Emily provides the primary perspective of the novel, and she is knowing and skeptical as her sister marries a handsome semi-engineer with loutish tendencies, who turns into an abusive, blue collar machinist. Emily provides a working girl’s jaundiced view of her sister’s mediocre, tawdry surburban domesticity. Sarah’s despair is fueled by increasingly chronic alcoholism as the years go by. Yates should be given a lot of credit for turning his unsparing eye towards domestic violence in 1976. Even though the women’s movement was in full flower at that point, my own subjective sense (graduating high school at the time) is that domestic violence hadn’t entered the national discussion quite yet. And Yates shows that angry, frustrated drunken men were routinely beating the shit out of their wives, hidden in the shadows of the American dream.
All of this is of course horrifying from Emily’s point of view. Emily has gone to college and learned to read and write and edit. But she never quite gets a foothold in either a career or in relationships. Her independence seems to doom her somehow to bittersweet, unsatisfying romantic choices. She has more variety than her sister, but little or nothing to show for it in the end. She’s never in a truly bad job or horrible relationship, but she’s never in a good one either. Her superiority over Sarah sustains her, and it is only after Sarah is drunk, disfigured, dead and gone that Emily falls apart and loses everything.
The sisters’ dark fate is determined by their parents, divorced when Emily is a small child. Their dreamy, impractical mother and patient, detached, and impossibly distant father are rather obviously modeled after Yates’ own parents, and the strength of the autobiographical scenes, details, and characters comes across very directly. But there’s an important twist, as Yates’ is telling his sister’s story, more or less, through Sarah, while Emily stands in for his own role in his dark family drama. This allows him to work a few intriguing changes on the facts. Emily’s relationship with and rejection of her mother is a bit less fraught than it might have been in real life, and the Oedipal conflicts are well-avoided in the novel, but the relationship of the sisters becomes deeper and more interesting because of their contrasting viewpoints. And at the same time, in a neat sleight of hand, it seems as if Yates is able to dig even further into autobiographical details and truths by giving a couple of Emily’s lovers problematic characteristics that seem to describe Yates himself. The mid-section of the book is a careful dissection of Emily’s relationship when she moves to the Iowa writer’s workshop with a blocked, self-pitying, hopeless poet, author of a couple of brilliant early collections, who knows he’s become a hack who can’t do anything right. So we see Yates folded in upon himself somehow, his despair and rejection doubled and shown from both inside and outside, masculine and feminine at once. It’s an expertly turned, neat trick, exquisite craftsmanship, and even stronger when it’s seen as setting up the third part of the book, which I described before as a sort of Sherman’s march through the life of first Sarah and then Emily.
Yates, growing old, gives just a slight hint of redemption at the very end of the novel. Sarah and her abusive husband have produced two unremarkable sons, but they have a third child, Peter, who has a spiritual bent and becomes a 70’s era, slightly alternative clergyman. As Emily declines into complete isolation and careens towards starvation and death, she manages to make her way to Peter, and she becomes completely unhinged at the moment of her arrival, spewing invective in the same way her mother did years before. But Peter is calm, tolerant and understanding, seemingly prepared to accept her at her worst and still usher her in comfort to her end. As odd as it is to find a religious figure at the end of one of Yates’ books, it is done with swift assurance, in a simple way with a lack of sentiment. From a realist standpoint, it seems to say that given enough tries, one child might just find peace and be able to ease some of the suffering that marks the family. Emily surrenders herself to his care, with her final thought a realization, appropriate enough to this blog, that she has “understood nothing.”
I’m left with the sense that Yates’ work will withstand the most careful and thoughtful academic treatment, and he deserves the best commentary that can be mustered. One final thing I’d like to mention is the short lifespan that is shown in the two novels that I’ve read. In RevRoad April Wheeler, a frustrated young mother, can’t conceive of a future and ends her own life. In Easter Parade adulthood is soaked in alcohol, brutish, and short, and somehow Sarah and Emily’s lives seem long and full of yearning, but they’re both wiped out and finished before they turn 50. Just making it to 50 is more than enough time to live with the pain of Yates’ world, where there is no such thing as a sobering thought, only drunken, depressed, and honest ones.