The acrid bite of literary realism, in brief

Realism rules. Consider the first 10 words in Richard Yates’ novel “The Easter Parade”:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life”

Sting, sizzle. 

This opener is massively effective. Knifelike, it plunges into the story, ducking preliminaries or decorous setups cluttered with background frills and bunting. Before we’ve even met the protagonists we are told in the chilliest terms how things will unspool for them tonally, if not dramatically. It’s a great entrance, pungent, punchy.

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I broach this because I’m half-way through “The Easter Parade” and its satisfactions are abundant, much like those in Yates’ corrosive classic of marital dissolution “Revolutionary Road.” That masterpiece of American realism is fiction with fangs, casting an unsparing eye on mainstream domestic rituals.

And it’s part of a 20th-century literary tradition, stories and novels, mostly by male writers, that scrutinize the age of anxiety, explicit sex, cynicism, malaise, regret, envy, jobs, kids, homes, husbands, wives, lovers, losers, drunks, the city and the mirage of the white suburban dream.

Highlights in this unofficial canon of realism include: Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”; Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”; John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff’s unflinching stories; James Salter’s “Light Years”; John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy; Richard Ford’s “Bascombe” trilogy; and so many more.

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Disillusionment, loss, heartbreak and disappointment are fragrant themes of these authors. But strangely the stories don’t feel forlorn. They almost feel consoling, perversely empathic — even when the human condition is laid bare and loneliness, our worst fear, takes hold.

”If my work has a theme,” Yates said, “I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

These realists serve up banality without bathos, unnerving wisdom in unfussy, largely conventional language. They are bleak and blunt, sometimes cruel in their honesty.

A (bitter) tasting:

“The hell with this aching, suffering, callow, half-assed delusion that he was in ‘love’ with her. The hell with ‘love’ anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world.”  — Richard Yates, “Revolutionary Road”

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.” — Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”

“She perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how cruel and frail it was, like a worn piece of burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness.” — John Cheever, “Stories of John Cheever”

“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.” — James Salter, “Light Years”

“Any time spent with your child is partly a damn sad time, the sadness of life a-going, bright, vivid, each time a last. A loss. A glimpse into what could’ve been.” — Richard Ford, “Independence Day”

51aBkOQUbQLThese are acid words. They are tough and unsentimental. I gravitate to them, and I can’t recommend them enough. They are beautiful. In them I locate unembellished truth. I’ve lived a little (Christ, I’m starting to sound like a grizzled cowboy) and none of these sentiments rings false or fabricated. They sound snipped from life in all its tarnished glories and burnished failures, and it is intoxicating.

Bitching about the birthday

The birthday blues are too obvious, an emotional cliche as lamentably predictable as Christmas cheer and Valentine’s self-pity.

Too bad. I’ve got those jangly, moaning blues, just a little bit, for tomorrow I smash head-on into one of those big, hairy birthdays, the kind with horns and tusks that makes you spin yet makes friends and family giggle. 

I’m getting older when I specifically asked the calendar to cease and desist from advancing. It’s disgusting. But I can do this. 

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Plans for the Big Day? Hilarious. A good friend scheduled his wedding for tomorrow, so I’ll be spending a chunk of my time celebrating someone else’s milestone. That should keep my mind off things. Pass the Champagne.

(Truth be told, I haven’t actually “celebrated” — party, gathering, friends — my birthday since I turned 13. The attention mortifies me.)

Spiffy (or is it scratchy and twitchy?) in suit and tie from the nuptials, I will then be taken to a suave dinner at Tom Colicchio’s swanky Temple Court in the Beekman Hotel in Lower Manhattan, courtesy of my swell brother, who is also attending the marital event. (Kudos, Jeff and Debbie!)

Do birthdays really change anything? Will I wake up tomorrow with a jungly, gray Moses beard? Will my insistent lower-back ache go into sudden overdrive? Will the pain in my left hand morph into full-blown grandpa arthritis? Will my ambivalent outlook on life, a fraught shade of charcoal-gray, turn black, black, black?

On all counts, I think not. Tomorrow, April 7, will be an overcast Saturday, breezy and easy, featuring a soiree that I don’t even have to throw — I’ll pretend it’s my birthday party — a day in New York, and a dinner sure to stagger. 

The calendar pages flip. It happened one year ago, no big deal. It happened the year before that, ditto. A dear friend said not to worry, I have scores more years to go. I’m not sure that’s the best news — I’m really not digging visions of me in my nineties.

I fear aging, not dying. One will beat the other; it’s a race to the finish. My birthday is just another lap.