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Book Review : An Art Form in the Material of Despair

September 19, 1986|ELAINE KENDALL

Cold Spring Harbor by Richard Yates (Delacorte: $16.95)

Reading this meticulously crafted novel, one wonders why the author has made matters so difficult for himself. Writing fiction is challenging enough given all the advantages of character, setting and plot, so why choose an entire company of pitiful losers, put them into a place you admit is a "rotten little town" and give them nothing to do but slide passively into poverty, alcoholism, blindness and lunacy? And those are only the major woes; the more fortunate people in the book suffer merely from desperate loneliness, unrequited love and disabling anxiety.

Rising to the occasion, Richard Yates has turned these unpromising lives into a remarkably sensitive exploration of at least four different kinds of despair, with results less depressing than one might expect. If none of the characters ever triumphs over adversity, we can at least delight in the author's skill with his material. Against all odds, Yates has managed to show that chronic misery can be as much an art form as acute agony.

In Two Shabby Houses

Though the title refers to an actual town on Long Island's North Shore, readers familiar with the Cold Spring Harbor of sea breezes, tennis tournaments and gourmet take-out may have trouble recognizing Yate's version of that agreeable resort. Most of the action takes place in two shabby houses. The drab brown one belongs to the Shepard family, consisting of Charles, a retired Army officer slowly losing his sight; his alcoholic and reclusive wife Grace, and their handsome ne'er-do-well 23-year-old son Evan. The other is the ramshackle place rented by the pathetic divorcee Gloria Drake, her gullible daughter Rachel and her articulate teen-age son Phil.

The two families are brought together when the Shepard's car breaks down in New York as Evan is driving his father to an ophthalmology clinic. Needing a phone and choosing a doorbell at random from an array at a nearby apartment house, the Shepards meet Gloria, living, as she says "by her wits" with her son and daughter; this particular flat only the present stop in a declining series. Desperately eager for company, Gloria keeps the Shepards in her living room long after they've made their call. Finally, Phil and Rachel return, and Evan Shepard, who had never held a steady job, who had already been married and divorced, whose only asset is his profile, turns his attention to Rachel, who promptly falls in love with him just as her mother Gloria is smitten with the pleasant and courteous Charles Shepard.

Quite soon, because "Cold Spring Harbor" is under 200 pages, Rachel and Evan marry. Even more lonely than before, now that her daughter is gone and Phil away at boarding school, Gloria takes a house in Cold Spring Harbor hoping that somehow she and Charles Shepard might also get together if only they're neighbors as well as in-laws. Gloria persuades Evan and Rachel to move in with her, an arrangement providing Evan with a good reason to spend less time with his pregnant and adoring second wife and more time with his sexy first one.

Cool and Ironic

Since most of this low-key domestic drama is perceived from 15-year-old Phil's point of view, the events are seen in a cool and ironic light. With a mother as deluded and eccentric as Gloria and a sister as limp as Rachel, Phil has had to develop resourcefulness, resilience and a sense of humor. When Phil is on stage, coping with life at his second-rate prep school, working as a parking lot attendant during summer vacation, or reacting to the tragicomedy around him, the languid pace of the book picks up considerably. Given a few breaks, Phil Drake could rival Holden Caulfield, but even his liveliest observations cannot alter the inexorable downbeat mood of this plot. We're left with the hope that so sensible and appealing an adolescent might eventually resurface in a novel of his own; one in which he can control the direction of his life and perhaps even rescue his mother and sister from the dreary fate in store for them here.

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