Richard Yates’s Liars in Love is a collection of seven smooth, professionally written stories which eschew contemporary clichés of sex and violence. While the title strains somewhat in stretching from the title story to cover the entire collection, the stories certainly form a collection with unity and continuity of thematic conflict, character, and time and place.
Indeed, the stories are too smooth and professional. The pleasure of reading a story which makes perfectly lucid transitions from paragraph to paragraph becomes less when the reader is never asked to puzzle out what is going on in any of the stories. Six of the seven stories present the protagonist’s name in the first paragraph. The one which does not presents a page on Europe at the end of World War II before presenting the protagonist in that setting. Basic continuity in each story is provided by a protagonist seeing and remembering events that are important to him (her, in one story) in a sequence that eschews the roughness of stream of consciousness or suspense-building. Similarly, it is a pleasure to read a story that could be about incest or rape and, instead, ends quietly and anticlimactically, but quiet anticlimax can become a predictable cliché itself.
“Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” features a tantalizing cameo appearance by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the “inside” look at FDR is a cliché: he looks ugly and pathetic as a cripple. The story is marred by an obvious implausibility: late in the story Billy, remembering his life at age seven from an adult perspective, is revealed as a stutterer. The information fits in smoothly, and is not needed for the plot line earlier, but it strains credulity that the adult remembering his childhood does not remember that he stutters until it is important to the plot line.
“A Natural Girl” is a character study of Susan Andrews, a woman without any character, without any interesting bumps in her personality. She lends herself to smooth depiction because there is so little that can be said. The events of a rather ordinary life wash over her without touching her. “Trying Out for the Race” is potentially rough in its imbalanced cast of characters: two women, each with a daughter and one with a son, live together to save on expenses. The story does not pursue this opportunity, however, singling out the son as the protagonist and focusing on his difficulties as symbolic man of the house, making the story a variation on the theme of “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” rather than something unique.
“Liars in Love” is smooth with familiarity. Warren Matthews, a Fulbright scholar in London, is deserted by his wife. He takes up with a prostitute who is, apparently, a better person than his wife, but she proves to be grasping and mendacious. His wife wants him back and he gladly returns. His only problem is keeping this sordid escapade from his wife’s Aunt Judith, with whom he lives, but she finds out and is more understanding and “hep” than he expected. In “A Compassionate Leave,” an American G.I. goes from Germany to Paris to London, but Yates’s only concession to the hectic, chaotic ambiance of time and place is a page of explanation about the lot of G.I.’s in 1945 before moving smoothly into the events.
“Regards at Home” is more a sketch or tone poem than a story and rolls out the protagonist’s difficulties with mother, wife, and male colleague. “Saying Goodbye to Sally” is the most original story in the collection. A screenwriter in California in 1962 seeks sex and tranquillity in the chaos of the notorious Hollywood life-style. Nevertheless, Jack Fields’s difficulties with erratic women unfold in the same smooth, unreflective way as those of boys and men in other stories.
Yates exercises self-censorship in references to sex and violence. Curiously, the few instances he presents would benefit not so much from explicitness as deletion since they do not play integral parts in the stories. “Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired” has one act of violence, one reference to female nudity, and an ugly confrontation. The episode of the arrow-shooting of Billy’s namesake fish underscores Billy’s sensitivity, but, then, what child would not be upset? John Cabot, the archer, age eleven, is also the one to comment leeringly on seeing Billy’s sister naked. Billy is unimpressed. In her frustration at not reaping fame and fortune from sculpting FDR, Helen, Billy’s mother, verbally assaults a Jew with anti-Semitic remarks. The story would...