A Special Providence

Of all Yates’s autobiographically-led works, this novel must surely be his roman a clef. Bob Prentice, his thinly disguised alter-ego, makes the transition from adolescence to manhood via the grim experience of trying to stay alive, and sometimes fighting, during the end of the Second World War, in ways that seem to mirror exactly what Yates himself went through. That probably explains both why he hated it – and he really did hate it – and why it had to be written. He had surprised himself, I think, with what he produced in Revolutionary Road and hadn’t, as most writers seem to do with their first novel,  expunged his own demons. So ASP allows him to do that but he wanted to bury it. Monica Yates told me this: ‘I’m with all the people that think that he and everyone else was unfairly hard on A Special Providence – that’s a pretty good one too’ and went on to tell me that her brother-in-law dared once to praise it to RY. He was not pleased! He likened it to preferring a rat on a leash over a greyhound. Interesting.

Re-reading this novel has been fascinating. No, it’s not as good as Revolutionary Road or The Easter Parade but there are some very, very good bits. The war writing is so vivid and so honest. Prentice stumbles about in a fog of ignorance and illness in ways that not only mirror Yates’s own youth and tubercular struggles but must mirror those of so many other young men, drafted abroad after only six weeks training and still unsure which end of  a gun to hold. His desperate desire to find friends, while only further annoying all those around him, his clumsiness and lack of natural athleticism, his thoughts about his Mum (though always aware of how irritating she is), and the visceral sense of how grim and frightening the whole experience was and how alone he was with his fear, is all so realistically and, as I said, honestly, conveyed. He doesn’t write about big battles, huge vaguely honourable duties to eliminate the enemy: he writes about little skirmishes – of which there must have been hundreds of thousands – when you could barely tell who was friend and who was foe. It’s the minutiae of war not the grand picture.

Where this book is weaker is in the lack of a control, a sense of control we see in most of his other fiction. He overuses the movie-metaphor for instance, making it stand out as a tool for his art, rather than as he did in RR, or in his short stories, allowing it to blend organically with the experience being described.


9 Responses to “A Special Providence”

  1. Okay, now you’re tempting me, and I’m actually conflicted because Yates forbid me to read it. But if I buy a copy, some money goes to his estate, right? Please help me justify this disobedience. :0

  2. kateonyates Says:

    Don’t be conflicted – we don’t say that in England (what on earth do we say? It’s such a good adjective…confused? in conflict? Unsure? No, none are as good as conflicted) – read it. The war bits are fantastic, I think and there are some excellent evocations of a young man trying to come to terms with a mother who loves but smothers him. He didn’t like it but he can’t really forbid you to read something that was published. If you read it knowing that it isn’t as good as RR or TEP or the stories you will be amazed by what you find.
    Yes, it must all go to the estate. I hope it does.

  3. As you say, A SPECIAL PROVIDENCE, following on Rev Rd and 11 Kinds, was Yates’s least successful novel, and he himself came to regret it (per account of Blake Bailey and others).

    On rereading 36 years later, however, and given familiarity now with Yates’s biography and his later books, I also find it fascinating. The hero, Prentice, follows on the “autobiographical blowout” about the young writer in “Builders,” a story written after Yates published Revolutionary Road, and which caps 11 Kinds of Loneliness (all the other stories in 11 Kinds preceded Rev. Rd.). While he was working on SP, when I first met Yates at the Iowa Writers Workshop, he spoke of SP as bettering Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. According to Blake Bailey, RV Cassill, Yates’s literary friend at the time, wrote him that the novel broke in half. The Prentice parts didn’t go with the Alice parts.

    For me, rereading, problems remain. April’s quixotic determination to succeed as a sculpture and her belief in a divine benificence seem to drive Prentice to hatred of pretense and sentimentality. Yates is uncharacteristically forcing the connection and attempting to dramatize the seeds of Prentice’s future calling in the combat sections. An inevitable mama’s boy, Prentice welcomes the male fraternity of the Army as an escape—one that recalls that of Hemingway’s Krebs. He bonds with a buddy, Quint, and because of a histrionic sense of honor, refuses to quit duty when both he and Quint and have pneumonia. If he had agreed to go to the medics, along with Quint, all would have been fine. He tells Quint that he won’t quit, but after they are separated, he collapses and is taken back. Quint stays on and is blown up by a mine. When Prentice hears this, he blames himself for his posturing. Later on, in real combat, Prentice seeks to expiate his shame, but the big moment comes in a fight with another soldier, Walker.

    To be noted: 1) Alice’s religion throughout as part of her self-delusion (unconvincing); 2) Prentice’s guilt for Quint, expiated by fight (forced and unconvincing, especially when the author telegraphs his points: “he wanted to kill all the posturing fraudulence in the world” (317) and the climatic perceptions from 321 to 322 as Prentice sees through the idea of “a special providence”:

    “Everything would always come right in the end as long as a couple of good guys went up behind the barn and had it out, as long as a mother fell on her kenes and offered all her thanks to God and they played the Star-Spangled Banner on the radio. That was what these voices had to say: that was their lying, sentimental message, and it all went down as smoothly as pancakes and jelly….But it all came up again the minute they were outside the mess hall….It all came up, and with it, in the final painful spasms, came the last acrid bile of this self-hatred.”

    3) Despite the autobiographical parallels, Prentice’s life does depart from Yates’s: P is an only child, where Y had Ruth as a sister; also Y never went to college and did get into the circumstances of marrying Shiela.
    4) I miss any convincing connection to Builders; there is no suggestion that P. becomes a writer pursuing “honesty in the use of words”; 5) to the positive, as a character closely modeled on Pookie, Y’s mother–and as an ironically framed female voice, Alice is an advance over Mrs Givings and a prequel to Emily Grimes.

  4. kateonyates Says:

    This is fascinating DeWitt. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. I agree with you; there are many bits that do seem forced, or, as you say, where he telegraphs his message, but I don’t feel the novel is as poorly structured as Cassill suggests. The young lad of the beginning, and of Alice’s flashback sequences, is only a few years younger than the soldier. I feel we carry the sense of his youth and immaturity across all the sequences so that when Owen, in Texas is talking about the approaching war and the likelihood of Prentice having to fight, it resonates more strongly given the war bits we’ve already read. I think Part Two is too long and another war sequence might have broken it up better and made the cross-referencing stronger – I’m thinking here about the way Yates interrogates what ‘home’ is both in the prologue [The reality of home for those without money or a stable family life is dirty, grimy and smelly: ‘Wherever they lived he seemed always to be the only new boy and the only poor boy, the only boy whose home smelled of mildew and cat droppings and plastilene, with statuary instead of a car in the garage; the only boy who didn’t have a father.’] and then throughout as BP considers his life; also how he explores notions of guilt – guilt about his father George’s death, guilt about how he feels about his mother and guilt about Quint.

    Yes, RY does depart from his own life – the absence of the sister being the big departure – but I think this is because, in his autobiographical blowout, he wanted to concentrate on what he had learnt about himself and Dookie and really hone in on that. He also seems to use this novel as a way of doing some exploratory work about issues that he looks at in more detail (more objectively?) later. There is of course the link with A Good School and many moments when Alice could be Gloria Drake in Cold Spring Harbor. The bit I’ve quoted above about home is so similar to the description of the Drake house in CSH.

    But there are aspects of this novel that rework ideas already published: I’m thinking of the link between the George/Bobby relationship and how it echoes the same – or very similar – relationship in his 1954 story ‘Lament for a Tenor’ (Cosmopolitan). Also the way he continues to investigate the nature of real, honest emotion. He seems to suggest that whatever incites tears, humans finally only ever cry for themselves; the initial spur to crying is replaced by something self-conscious and tears are sustained only in self-pity. In Lament he writes about Jack finally being able to cry in response to the knowledge that his father has died: ‘Then suddenly the image of the tenor was gone, swept back and lost down the clattering tracks, and Jack knew he wasn’t crying for his father at all, but for himself – a boy bereaved.’ As Shep Campbell says, ‘The whole point of crying was to quit before you’d cornied it up. The whole point of grief itself was to cut it out while it was still honest, while it still meant something.’ So Alice’s propensity to wallow in, and manufacture or corny-up, her emotional responses is seen against RY’s previous thoughts about ‘honest’ emotion: ‘And she burst into tears. As if shot, she then clutched her left breast and collapsed full length on the floor, splitting an armpit seam of the dress…’ p.16 and p.137 when she, quite unashamedly realises she is weeping ‘for a lost and innocent time when everybody knew she was the baby of the family.’

    Sorry this is all a bit rambling. One more thing: Sharon told me that Mrs Givings was based on Dookie’s mother who was a real estate agent and was the mother of Uncle Charlie the man on whom John G is based.

  5. Hi Kate, thanks for the comment. I did read his short stories a number of years ago and they were very good. I think the novel though is where he is best. I’ve been on a Yates marathon. I’ve now read RR, The Easter Parade, A Good School and Cold Spring Harbor. I just ordered Disturbing the Peace, AND if that isn’t enough, I’m reading his bio right now.

    I’ll order the last 2 of his books once they come down a bit in price–though I’m looking forward to them. On a personal level, he had some issues. His habits make me cringe a bit (smoking 4 packs a day, drinking beer in the morning, no exercise, living in some dark, roach infested squalor–yuck).

    I’m so glad he’s been resurrected–it confirms my theory that quality always rises, it just sometimes doesn’t happen when you think it will.

  6. kateonyates Says:

    Great that you dropped by Jessica. As to a Yates marathon, there’s a few of those going on! Once you’ve had enough of this site (heaven forbid!) have a look at zhiv. His older posts include many detailed discussions about Yates that might be of interest. He’s moved on to Chekhov now and left us Yates enthusiasts far behind. Sad but true.

  7. I 1st heard about Yates back I think in ’01 or maybe ’02–there was some article about him in the NY Review of books. It spent more discussing his personal problems than his actual work, which isn’t surprising. I remembered the name, and then bought his short stories around that time when I saw them discounted. Pleased with them, I finally found RR in a used bookstore a number of years ago. (So it wasn’t the film that piqued my interest–it was the other way around).

    A couple of years ago I was on a Richard Wright marathon, and I’ve done a Richard Ford one (who championed Yates as you know–which helped feed my interest), and now I’m onto a new Richard. (And a new Yeats, though not W.B.)

    Chekhov’s short stories are a great read. I’m glad that Yates is getting out again, finally. Another writer that was “rediscovered” was the Hungarian writer Sandor Marai (Embers)–he was finally translated into English and I’d like to read more of him but they’ve only done 3 books thus far.

    But the Yates bio is a good, fun read thus far–not boring or turgid like many bios can be.

  8. kateonyates Says:

    For the student of Yates, bearing in mind there is almost nothing else formally published about him, Blake Bailey’s biography is invaluable. It’s very detailed and so fluent. I have to say that….Blake occasionally drops by this site! Seriously though, it is a great work of enthusiastic scholarship. He managed to get interviews with some people normally quite reluctant to discuss Yates: namely, Sheila. Sadly, tragically even for me and future Yates scholars, many of his papers and photographs were lost to hurricane Katrina.

    There’s another Richard in the mix now since Richard Price wrote an Introduction to the new Everyman edition. What is it about the name Richard?

  9. Blake occasionally drops by this site!

    Cool–I’ll be reviewing it eventually.

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