Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates

It’s time for my AY (that’s Annual Yates, not Young Adult).

I limit my reading of Yates because I find his stories intensely depressing. But I admire them for exactly the same reason.

Given that most of the year has been spent in lockdown, I decided I hardly needed to add a Yates-induced-existenital-crisis to the mix, so chose to re-read one of the first books I read by him (pre-blogging) – Disturbing the Peace.

All of Yates’s novels have a dark edge, and there’s nothing subtle about that edge in this story. The focus is on John Wilder, a successful advertising salesman, and a ‘high-functioning alcoholic’. Until he’s not, of course. One night, Wilder has a nervous breakdown, and what follows are scenes from a mental asylum; meetings at AA; the destruction of his marriage; a new career; and tumbler after tumbler of whiskey misery.

As a rule, central characters in Yates’s novels self-destruct little-by-little. There’s usually all sorts of strenuous efforts to keep up appearances. Not so in Disturbing the Peace – Wilder’s self-destruction is swift and thorough, and the story focuses on his weak and deluded attempts to rebuild his life.

…he wanted to discuss this strange compulsion to let people know the worst about himself – this confusion of what was weak and ugly in himself with what was ;interesting; – but he couldn’t find the words to begin. And the more he drank, the more that topic receded in his mind until it was replaced by irrational, sickening images of jealousy.

What makes Wilder compelling, is his ability to shift from self-denial to self-awareness. The denial focuses on his sense of entitlement, and the awareness centres on his mediocrity –

Well, he had never really shaped up – the world had spared him that – but he’d never really been made to ship out either, unless he wanted to count his flunking out of Yale. There had always been some middle course and he’d always taken it….

My second reading of this book was interesting for a few reasons – this time I looked at Wilder through an attachment-theory lens (!). There’s a lot happening for Wilder in terms of his estranged relationship with his parents; his failed marriage to Janice; and his affair with the young and ambitious Pamela – to witness Wilder desperately trying to define himself in the context of these other people, demonstrates Yates’s skill at progressing a character without relying entirely on inner-monologue.

Equally interesting was the focus on therapy. Psychotherapy features in many of Yates’s books, but in this story, therapists are key characters. Wilder is scathing of his therapist, Dr, Blomberg, and denounces psychotherapy as ‘show business…with an audience of one’. Yet, he is repeatedly drawn back to Blomberg –

“You know something? You’re the only dead-silent bullshit artist I’ve ever met. I tell you the whole God damned story of my life; you sit there saying absolutely nothing and hauling in a hundred a week of my money, and you know what that’s called? That’s larceny.”

I’ve had Blake Bailey’s A Tragic Honesty – a biography of Yates – sitting on my shelf for far too long. I’m hoping it gets into the nitty-gritty of Yates’s own experience of psychotherapy (which must exist, given that he was a hot mess).

Is it his best? No. It lacks the nuance of his better novels, but the chilling ending is enough to make this story memorable.


Wilder has a business lunch in Chicago –

The martinis here came in stemmed glasses, but the stems were only an inch high and the glasses as deep as tumblers.


12 responses

  1. It’s ages since I’ve read any Yates – yes, he’s an author I admire too. I don’t know this particular one, so maybe I should give it a go, even if it’s not his best. As a shallow aside, I do love the covers of the Vintage Yates editions.

  2. I’m going to read my first Yates next year. I’ve owned Revolutionary Road for ages, but it’s stuck in a box in America. Instead, I’ll read The Easter Parade (around Easter time, of course) since I’ve just picked up a cheap paperback from a charity warehouse.

  3. I’ve now made a library reading list of Yates books. You’ve recommended a starting point to me before, so I’m off to look for it. This review made me think of Don Draper.

    Also, that sounds like my kind of martini glass (vodka, not gin).

  4. I was impressed by Revolutionary Road: I gave it five stars at Goodreads, which i probably wouldn’t do now because I save that for works of spectacular genius.
    But it’s a brutal dissection of marriage…

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