In brief: Eleven short stories from this talented writer, with loneliness as the focus.
The good: Many varied takes on the theme, plus I liked this historical aspect of how tuberculosis was treated.
The not-so-good: Some stories were stronger than others.
Why I chose it: Really enjoy Richard Yates’ writing.
Year: 2008 (original 1962)
Publisher: Vintage Classics
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
I’m not the greatest fan of short stories, but I am a passionate fan of Richard Yates. (Revolutionary Road is one of the most exquisite books I have ever read – you can feel the pain and emptiness seep through the pages). I’ll greedily read anything the man has written, but I’m trying to space it out as he is no longer with us. (Richard Yates died in 1992). This book seemed perfect for the short week bookended by two public holidays and easy to dip in and out of.
I should have known that I can’t read Richard Yates casually. I like to read his books in big chunks, but I limited myself to three or four stories each night. As the title suggests, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is eleven short stories (ten of similar length, and one longer story, Builders to finish with) dealing with loneliness in various forms. The book opens with Doctor Jack-O’-Lantern, a tale of a new schoolboy who does and doesn’t fit in. From the tale of youth, we move across to the tuberculosis ward for The Best of Everything. (Out with the Old also looks at life in the tuberculosis ward, but from the patient perspective rather than the isolated spouse). Builders and A Wrestler of Sharks both deal with young, not very successful writers, while A Glutton for Punishment deals with a man who loves a dose of misery. All these stories show the various forms of loneliness that can happen, and often the character I suspected as being the lonely one turned out to be another one. It just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive (and some of the characters revel in a bit of deception).
Another thing that fascinated me as a modern reader was life in the tuberculosis ward. These days, treatment means that you’re not in for a long hospital stay and medication generally means cure. The relationships the men in the ward developed over time, multiple surgeries, death and boredom while isolated from friends and family was remarkable. I don’t think a modern person would accept such a long seclusion from the world but Yates is master at revealing how each of them deals with their loneliness.
I love the cover of this book as another sign of times gone by – who stands reading paper these days? Replace the paper with a smartphone or tablet and you can see how the world isolates itself from others. Are we all really lonely behind the paper or gadget? Yates raises interesting scenarios through his well-crafted characters, showing that anyone, in any situation, could be lonely at some point, even if they’re in a crowd of many. While the stories are typical of Yates in that they’re not always a happy ending, they’re realistic and detailed. A great set of stories.