rev. of The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Issue #11
Spring 1977

In Delmore Schwartz's short story,
In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, the protagonist imagines a film of his parents' courtship. He watches in impotent anguish for a while as they move inexorably toward their future and his, and then he stands suddenly and shouts to them not to do it, that nothing good can ever come of their attachment.

Readers of
The Easter Parade might well feel the same way. We start in the innocent childhood of its major characters and watch helplessly as they are taken beyond our control, and even worse, beyond their own, toward disaster. The book warns us with its opening sentence:

Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life. . .

And yet we persist, go forward, and hope for the best. That is the real magic of Yates's art, the ability to command our interest in such submissive characters, lost navigators who refuse to rechart the doomed course of their lives.

Emily and Sarah are the children of divorced parents, of a passive father and a self-destructive mother. Walter Grimes takes his small daughters to visit the newspaper where he works and he explains that it's only a job, this writing of headlines, that lack of talent and scarcity of work are what keep him, unhappily, where he is.

Later when Sarah tries to defend him to a schoolmate, Emily sticks grimly to the facts:

"He's only a copy-desk man," she said.

Already deprived of his constant family presence, his children are now also bereft of their cherished illusions about him.

The girls' mother Pookie seems more ambitious, seeking an elusive commodity she calls "flair", expecting to find it in the environs of the wealthy. She and the two sisters become transients in her search, moving from one "nice community to another, taking their fragile family structure with them wherever they go." Emily and Sarah are left alone a great deal of the time, or in the care of indifferent strangers. They grow up anyway, and with an appetite for all the promised pleasures.

We invest most of our optimism in Emily, who seems more liberated, who is the first one in her family to have a college education. Sarah settles for an early marriage to a man who looks thrillingly like Laurence Olivier, and she hangs in throughout its terribly brutal course.

But Emily has a number of men in her life. Her first sexual experience is with a young soldier she has just met in Washington Square. She's not even certain of his name and the act itself bewilders her with its unfulfilled expectation of ecstasy. Afterward, she suffers discomfort because she doesn't know what's expected of her in the way of post-coital conversation.

Emily proceeds from there to other relationships, each one destructive in a different way, but she feels toughened by her new self-image as an "intellectual," someone who can survive love's disappointment with ironic aplomb. There is Andrew Crawford, a graduate assistant who is impotent with her. He swears his devotion and then he goes off, like a beleaguered fairy-tale prince, to seek therapeutic help. In his absence, Emily finds a merchant seaman whose virility delights her, as does his natural worldliness. But Lars soon confesses to bisexuality with a current preference for men.

Emily swears off sex for a while, as if
that were the fatal force, but she's tempted into a few more affairs before Andrew returns, not cured, but having "turned the first corner." They marry and of course the marriage is disastrous, as are all of Emily's ensuing alliances with men. There are two abortions. There's Jack and Ted and Howard. Finally she wakes to find herself lying next to a man she cannot place in her memory, a situation she marks as "sordid."

"I see," Emily says from time to time, swallowing confusion and frustration. In truth she hardly sees anything, least of all her own pattern of masochistic behavior.

In the meantime Pookie and Sarah have followed Yate's unhappy prophecy too, Sarah to physical abuse at the hands of her romantic Englishman, both women to alcohol, institutionalization, and death.

The prose of
The Easter Parade is remarkably spare. Story is never sacrificed to metaphor and the characters are always seen through their actions, or
lack of action, rather than through the linguistic manipulation of their author.

All connections between them are loose or faulty. When Pookie coyly asks Emily if she can imagine Pookie as a grandmother:

Emily wanted to say I can't even imagine you as a mother, but controlled herself.

When her father dies:

Emily sat down in a creaking straight chair with her hands in her lap and she would always remember that on first hearing the news she felt nothing at all.

The Easter Parade is about that denial of feeling. It is about the tragedy of failed family life and the repeatedly self-defeating choices of its member-victims. In this, his most powerfully affecting novel since
Revolutionary Road, Yates insists upon, and earns, our intense attention to people who move like dreamwalkers toward their sad destinies, who try to compensate through careers or sexual encounters for the absence of real human involvement. It is relentless in its despair until a thin note of hope is sounded at the very end as Emily speaks, taking an apparent leap into consciousness:

"And do you know a funny thing? I'm almost fifty years old and I've never understood anything in my whole life."