Lovers and Losers in Richard Yates’s Cold Spring Harbor

Richard Yates’s unflinching look at how a young man becomes a loser

I’m  retired from teaching high school English, but I’m not retired from reading.

In fact, I have discovered a whole new reading life.  Sometimes I have a few pangs of guilt. After all, my former colleagues and teachers around the country are experiencing a transformation (remote teaching) of unbelievable magnitude.  I feel for them and often write to support their efforts, but honestly, like a kid on a bike on a sunny morning, I’m riding into the next part of my life with sunny abandon!

One thing I’m doing is reading.  That’s right, reading for the sheer pleasure of it.  Reading to connect with the minds of  brilliant writers.  Reading to understand the world from another’s perspective.  Reading what I want, when I want, without having to justify it, quantify it, grade it, demystify it, or otherwise corrupt it. 

I came across native New Yorker, Richard Yates’s Cold Spring Harbor.  Having read his classic, Revolutionary Road, I decided it might make for a change of pace from my current fascination with self-help books.  This is the last book Yates wrote and it takes place in  Greenwich Village and Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.

The saga begins with the handsome Evan Shepard. At 23, he is already divorced with a daughter, when his car breaks down in lower Manhattan. He and his father, Charles, randomly meet Rachel Drake.  She comes with an entire set of insecurities as well.  Her mother, Gloria, is divorced from Rachel’s father, Curtis.  Rachel also has a younger brother, Philly, who attends boarding school.  Gloria is starving for companionship and love in a way that is reminiscent of Amanda’s neediness in  Tennesse  Williams’  The Glass Menagerie.  She is also talkative, obsessive, controlling and saccharine. Evan’s mother, Grace,  is equally challenged.  Charles takes care of Grace, his alcoholic, invalid wife who doesn’t make much of an appearance and leaves all the important decisions to Charles.  The novel is dark and a blueprint for the insidious progression of abuse.

In the he last few pages of the book, Evan hits Rachel across the face, leaving her bewildered and bruised. She is a clueless young wife and mother who is unaware that Evan is continuing his affair with Mary Donovan, the wife he divorced, his daughter Kathleen’s mother.  How did Evan get to this point?  How is this novel a psychological map of the slow accumulation of indignities that lead to physical abuse? These are the stepping stones that the handsome Evan takes to become the abuser he is by the end of the novel.

Passivity: This is the first sign that a relationship is off to a bad start.  Evan seems to be dispassionate, almost existential in the marriage to Rachel. He shows indifference–the dangerous kind.  It is like the indifference Meursault shows in The Stranger when his girlfriend Marie asks if he loves her.

“Marie came that evening and asked me if I’d marry her. I said I didn’t mind; if she
was keen on it, we’d get married.
Then she asked me again if I loved her. I replied, much as before, that her question
meant nothing or next to nothing—but I supposed I didn’t. ” ( Albert Camus, The Stranger, p. 28)

This is exactly what I imagined was going on in Evan’s mind as he agreed to marry Rachel.

Intrusion: Rachel and Evan rent an apartment that is way too expensive.  When Rachel gets pregnant, her mother suggests that they all move to a splendid house she’s found in Evan’s childhood neighborhood of Cold Spring Harbor.  Gloria has her own reasons for wanting to be close to Charles and she sees the move as a step into the suburban climb to respectability.  She is moving into a community of old money, even though the house she is moving into is damp and poorly constructed.  The living arrangements leave little space for Rachel and Evan to grow as a couple.  This is made even worse when Rachel’s brother, Phil, comes home from boarding school.

Dependency: This is a problem for Gloria who despises her ex-husband, Curtis, for being a “coward,” being short, and being a regular guy. Yet, she depends on him to pay alimony and to pay for Phil’s schooling.  Rachel is focused on keeping her mother happy, keeping Evan happy, and keeping the peace. She is totally dependent on Evan’s salary as a machinist.  Evan is dependent on his salary, living paycheck to paycheck.

Suffocation: Evan had hoped to save enough money to go to college; this is a recurring hope that is articulated more and more by Charles and Rachel and less and less by Evan himself.  As his responsibility for his daughter and his newborn son increases, he seems to understand that any chance of getting a college education is slipping away.  He gets promoted at work and seems to settle into his job, yet there is a part of him that is forever seething.

Gaslighting: By the end of the novel, Evan has become as dysfunctional as the rest of the characters in this Cold Spring Harbor tragedy.  He tells Rachel that she is “soft” before he hits her.  He has begun the psychological destruction of Rachel’s already shaky sense of self-worth.

Yates is like the Leonard Cohen of novels: dark, realistic, and fatalistic.  I might have been better off reading another self-help book, but this chilling novel is actually a self-help book, too, in its unrelenting, forthright, scathing look at the destruction of a young man who had good looks, a good address, and a good future ahead of him.

It’s been a long time since I read Revolutionary Road.  I’m glad I got to take a second look at Richard Yates’s Cold Spring Harbor. Maybe this one wasn’t a great choice, but I enjoyed it tremendously anyway!

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