‘The Best of Everything’

Re reading this story the other day, I continue to marvel at Yates’s economy of style and the complexty of his depictions of men and women. It is a wonderful indicator of how enormous the gap was between men and women who, in the fifties, couldn’t easily express themselves either about their emotions or about sex.

In ‘The Best of Everything’, Yates directs his readers’ sympathies to his female protagonist, Grace. While Grace, as we have seen earlier in the story, is directed by those around her, and propelling towards a romantic and idealised view of what is about to happen, Ralph is also seen as nervous, unwilling and far happier with ‘the lads’; it is the lads who move him to tears, the lads who touch him with their surprise party and their wonderful gift. His first loyalties are to his best friend Eddie and, not for the first time in a Yates story, suggest an element of homoeroticism that the story leaves unexplored: ‘Eddie was his best friend’ and ‘Half the fun of every date – even more than half – had been telling Eddie about it afterwards’. Such phrases suggest not just Ralph’s closeness to Eddie but his dependence on him, a closeness, dependence and comfort that we read in opposition to his aloof attitude towards his future bride. Furthermore, Yates slows his narrative to describe with great precision the moment when Eddie presents Ralph with his wedding present in a way that draws quiet attention to the intensity of emotion between these two men; ‘Then the crowd cleaved in half, and Eddie made his way slowly down the middle. His eyes gleamed in a smile of love, and from his bashful hand hung the suitcase’. Reading like a parody of a bridal march, Yates’s description further reminds us of the gaps between his actual bride and his ‘best friend’. But it is not just Ralph against whom we read Grace: her friend and roommate’s snobbery forms another dialectic in this tale as Martha mimics and parodies Ralph’s speech – ‘“Isn’t he funny?” Martha had said after their first date. “He says ‘terlet.’ I didn’t know people really said ‘terlet.’”’ – as well as his cultural background; “Oh, and all those friends of his, his Eddie and his Marty and his George with their mean, ratty little clerks’ lives and their mean, ratty little…”

Yates captures the gap between male and female experience of marriage and courtship and underlies the fear for both genders about the step into the unknown that they are about to take, but it is to the isolate and disempowered that we are drawn. Grace, unaware of the surprise party Eddie has thrown for him, a party which he is desperate to return to, greets Ralph at the door in the expensive negligee she has bought for their honeymoon. Barely even noticing her provocative garb, seductive tone, or the promise of some unencumbered pre-marital sex, that they all imply, Ralph brushes past her: ‘“Hi, baby.” He brushed past her and walked inside. “Guess I’m late, huh? You in bed?”’ His quick-fire snappy dialogue is beautifully contrasted with her languid movements as, mimicking the seduction techniques of Hollywood starlets, ‘She closed the door and leaned against it with both hands holding the doorknob at the small of her back, the way heroines close doors in the movies.’ When Ralph finally notices her negligee, his response to it is characteristically vulgar and further emphasises the lack of any emotional investment in their partnership; ‘“Nice,” he said, feeling the flimsy material between thumb and index finger, like a merchant. “Very nice. Wudga pay fa this, honey?”’

Brilliant, in my view. Is there a better example of such a communication gap in the writing of, or about, the 1950s? Let me know….


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2 Responses to “‘The Best of Everything’”

  1. Great post. It’s such a great story. A big part of the accomplishment is the compartmentalizing of knowledge: they just have different perspectives, don’t know the same things, aren’t on the same page. Lots of standard issue Yates in it too, important precursors to RevRoad. Grace is homebound and immobilized and passive. Eddie’s desperate priority is his fragile standing in the world of men and work.

    I was just looking at the New Yorker discussion group on RevRoad for a minute. Did you keep track of all of that? Another thing I missed. It seems like a logical conclusion, or part of the general winding down, of Rev Road’s belated journey through bestsellerdom. I’d say that the thing to be on the lookout for are the people who take the next step, who go to Easter Parade and the stories, and even to Blake Bailey, the people who see from Rev Road that Yates was special and well worth further investigation.

    Based on this post and the Special Providence post, it does seem that you need to get around to spelling out some general blog-like thoughts on all of Yates’ stuff. I know you’re working on that last chapter, however, but maybe once you’re done…

  2. kateonyates Says:

    The ‘compartmentalizing of knowledge’; now there’s a phrase that helps. Exactly so. That’s what he does throughout. Men and women in different spheres, or as you say, not on ‘the same page’.

    Thanks for that, zhiv.

    I know I need to do what you suggest but I have to finish my last chapter – it’s going ok – so far – and then, yes, some summarizing and some big questions. At the moment I quite like just dipping in to different bits here; it’s all I have time for but I like the responses.

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