Christmas with Richard Yates

If the prospect of your annual encounter with Dickens, O’Henry, or Jean Shepherd isn't providing the usual anticipatory joy this Christmas season, consider Richard Yates. True, spending time with the author of Revolutionary Road and other generally gloomy tales of domestic discord might seem counterintuitive. Even fans bemoan his projected self-hatred, with novelist Richard Russo (in the introduction to The Collected Stories) allowing that there “may be some truth to the charge” by critics that Yates revels “in the failures his characters must endure.”

Yet I’d submit there’s something to be gained, even or especially at this time of year, from reading two Yates stories in particular. One is “Fun with a Stranger.” It will probably resonate with anybody who can recall what it was like to be a child stuck in a classroom at this time of year. I actually hadn’t thought about “Fun with a Stranger” for a while, until my daughter recently complained that her seventh-grade class would not be having a Christmas party. So I told her an abridged version of Yates’s story, about a class of third-graders under the tutelage of the “strict and humorless” Miss Snell, a woman of sixty or so who “seemed always to exude that dry essence of pencil shavings and chalk dust.” She’s a recognizable type—“preoccupied with rooting out the things she held intolerable: mumbling, slumping, daydreaming... and, worst of all, coming to school without ‘proper supplies.’” The children fear and dislike her, yet “they could not hate her, for children’s villains must be all black, and there was no denying that Miss Snell was sometimes nice in an awkward, groping way of her own.... [they had] a certain vague sense of responsibility toward her.”

The story is driven by the teacher's promise of a classroom celebration on the last day before Christmas vacation, with a possible surprise in the bargain.

Yates—who for his darkness is also justly acknowledged as a skillful writer of children—gets the reader to feel the students’ anticipation as it builds in the days before the party. But when the moment finally comes around, Miss Snell ploddingly proceeds with her usual lesson plan: “The afternoon wore on... [soon] it was a little after two... The minute hand crept down to two-thirty, passed it, and inched toward two-forty-five. Finally, at five minutes to three, Miss Snell laid down her book.” She then distributes the small, tissue-wrapped gifts piled on her desk. It will spoil nothing to reveal that they are not the toy soldiers or miniature dolls the students have been imagining, but… erasers: identical ones for all of the students, “the serviceable ten-cent kind, half-white for pencil and half-gray for ink.” What little air there was in the room vanishes entirely, yet Miss Snell stands “at the head of the class, her clasped fingers writhing like dry worms at her waist, her face melted into the soft, tremulous smile of a giver. She looked completely helpless.”

Now, I admit taking great pleasure from this story—it’s funny, for one thing—and I was pleased that my daughter, even with my abridged version, seemed to enjoy it too. Russo approves of it for the lesson an adult might draw: that the children are too young to appreciate Ms. Snell’s “perfect gift of love in the form of an eraser, something they’ll need in their mistake-filled adult lives.” Maybe so. But sometimes a ten-cent eraser is just a ten-cent eraser. The reader’s sympathy for Miss Snell is already aroused sufficiently by the children’s imperfect and innocent expression of it—that vague sense of responsibility toward her. And anyway their deflation is fleeting: Christmas vacation has come, and though in the closing lines the students run from school with “the exhilaration of escape,” they nonetheless are running toward something else, in anticipation of what is still at hand.

Where “Fun with a Stranger” holds disenchantment at bay, Yates’s “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” rises up to meet it. It centers on a brother and sister and their divorced mother living in Depression-era Greenwich Village. Though not a Christmas story per se, it takes its title from a lovingly depicted Christmas Eve celebration with neighbors: there are songs and vaudevilles, and then a beautiful and adored guest, an aspiring writer of radio plays, is asked to tell a story. She begins with something about Santa Claus but, in the words of Yates’s child narrator, “our embarrassed looks must have told her we knew we were being condescended to.” So, “after a thoughtful pause, she tried something else that turned out to be much better.”

‘Have you children ever heard the story of the first Christmas? When Jesus was born?’ And she began to tell it in the kind of hushed, dramatic voice she must have hoped might be used by the narrators of her more serious radio plays. ‘…And there were still many miles to go before they reached Bethlehem,’ she said, ‘and it was a cold night. Now, Mary knew she would very soon have a baby. She even knew, because an angel had told her, that her baby might one day be the savior of all mankind. But she was only a young girl’—here her eyes glistened, as if they might be filling with tears—‘and the traveling had exhausted her. She was bruised by the jolting gait of the donkey and she ached all over, and she thought they’d never, ever get there, and all she could say was ‘Oh Joseph, I’m so tired.’

The story went on through the rejection at the inn, and the birth in the stable, and the manger, and the animals, and the arrival of the three kings; when it was over we clapped a long time because she had told it so well.

What comes next are scenes of drunkenness and betrayal, followed by the gradual dissolution of the group that had gathered for the party. Even the neighbor who tells the story proves duplicitous. “Oh, Joseph” may not be something to share with a child this season, in full or abridged form. But it is, as Russo says, one of Yates’s finest—expertly constructed, fully realized, and unsentimental, even if, as is Yates's wont, not entirely hopeful in the end. The reader, like the young narrator, may well want to hold onto the memory of that Christmas Eve.

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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