Tuesday, March 22, 2011

"No Pain Whatsoever" by Richard Yates

I'm a hopeless realist, especially when it comes to fiction. That probably explains why I've come to love Richard Yates' writing. His characters are nothing if not real.

"No Pain Whatsoever" opens with Myra smoothing her skirt and pushing Jack's hand away. She is in the back seat of a car, heading toward the hospital TB ward for a weekly visit with her husband. Jack is her boyfriend.
It wasn't that there was anything to be ashamed of - Irene and Marty knew all about Jack and everything; most of her friends did, and nobody blamed her (after all, wasn't it almost like being a widow?) - it was just that Jack ought to know better. Couldn't he at least have the decency to keep his hands to himself now, of all times?
Tension builds as details slowly emerge. After deciding they will go out for drinks, Myra's friends drop her off at the hospital.
All the sheets and the hospital pajamas were dyed yellow, to distinguish them from uncontaminated linen in the hospital laundry, and this combined with the pale green of the walls made a sickly color scheme that Myra could never get used to.
At last we are introduced to her husband, Harry. He has been in the hospital for an undetermined length of time, with no discharge plans in the foreseeable future.
When he bent forward to take the match the yellow pajamas gaped open and she saw his chest, unbelievably thin, partly caved-in on one side where the ribs were gone. She could just see the end of the ugly, newly healed scar from the last operation.
Their visit is comprised of solely superficial conversation. It's obvious Harry has developed a new routine around the rhythm of hospital life. Clearly more anxious to delve into the new issue of Popular Science, he seems only vaguely interested in Myra's conversation. When Myra asks if it hurts, he responds,
"Not at all any more... I mean, as long as I don't go raising my arms too high or anything. When I do that it hurts, and sometimes I start to roll over on that side in my sleep, and that hurts too, but as long as I stay - you know - more or less in a normal position, why, there's no pain whatsoever."
Myra has a brief breakdown after she leaves the ward, but recovers in time to join her friends for one final round of drinks.

This story, like the Yates novels I've read, is very real and slightly sad. Simon (Stuck in a Book) said it perfectly in his post yesterday: "... next time I feel like a bit of American sombreness, I'll turn to Yates."

It's interesting to note that Yates contracted TB and recovered after a brief convalescence. Using the resulting army disability pension, he moved to Europe in 1954, lived there for several years, and wrote stories. "No Pain Whatsoever" is from The Collected Stories of Richard Yates. I was not able to find it online.

Short Story Monday is hosted by John Mutford at The Book Mine Set.


  1. I've never read Yates but from what you said he remind me of Joyce Carol Oates in that, I have to be in a certain mood to read her. It is usually in the fall when that general melacholy seems to settle over everyone as they say good bye to summer and prepare for the upcoming winter. Are there writers you read like that, at certain times of the year or when you are in a certain mood?

  2. Abby - Hmm, never considered the similarities between Yates and JCO, but now that you mention it... Simon's description of Yates as somber seems especially apt. JCO has seemed a little more despairing and brutal to me. I've loved Revolutionary Road and The Easter Parade (my favorite novel so far this year) and would be curious to see what you make of Yates.

    And I definitely choose books to fit my mood or the time of year! Winter seems perfect for Dickens or other long classics, but I read more contemporary stuff during the summer.

  3. Yates writing is so matter of fact but so compelling and I often feel as if I know his characters or would recognize the,. This is such a sad story, I want to give Harry a hug! I love the detail in Yates' stories, too.

    I have to get myself a copy of this collection!

  4. I have yet to read any Yates, but the excerpts you posted certainly make me want to!

  5. I keep discovering that many authors I have wanted to read have written short stories; it's great, maybe I will finally get my introduction to them then..

  6. AMy - I feel exactly the same way about his characters! Hope you can find a copy of his stories. I got mine from a bargain table at Strand Bookstore last summer, and was thrilled to find that it included an intro by Richard Russo.

    Nymeth - I hope you get a chance to read Yates. The Easter Parade is my favorite novel so far this year - need to get it reviewed soon!

    Em - Short stories are a great way to 'date' new writers. That's how I got to meet Colm Toibin, T.C. Boyle, Louise Erdrich, and Eudora Welty.

  7. Fantastic! I adore Richard Yates so much - he might be bleak but he is searingly honest and I think we need some of that sometimes. His writing is just so brilliant, I can't get enough of it.

    I have his collected stories at home home. I wish I had them here so I could read them now!

    Have you read Yates' biography, by Blake Bailey? It's truly excellent. I think you'd really enjoy it, JoAnn!

  8. Thanks for the info. Interesting excerpts.

  9. Such great snippets you offered. I've read just the one Yates story, A Really Good Jazz piano (which you left a comment on!). He seems just a tiny bit like Cheever; of that same time.

  10. Rachel - My library doesn't have a copy of the bio, but I've added it to my wishlist and will keep an eye out. The Easter Parade is my favorite novel so far this year... can't wait to read more!

    Cozy in Texas - Glad you liked them. Hope you get a chance to read some of Yates work.

    Nan - I probably need to read more Cheever, too. "The Swimmer" was amazing and I also enjoyed his novel The Wapshot Chronicle.

  11. I have only read Yates when Revolutionary Road was made into motion picture. No sooner had I opened the book did I adore his writing. I wonder why it takes me so long to read another book of his. I've been digging short stories, at least linked ones, maybe I should seek him out.

  12. Matt - After loving Revolutionary Road, I finally read The Easter Parade, but still need to write a review. It's my favorite novel so far this year. Hope you get a chance to read some of Yates' stories.

  13. This sounds good and oh so realistic..I have Revolutionary Road on my shelves..I'll have to get to it.

  14. Staci - Hope you get to read Yates, I think he is a great writer.

  15. JoAnn, I think you'll like this:


    It is from 1999. I'll send the link to Rachel too.

  16. As I was reading your review of the story, I was thinking that it had the feel of 1940/50s - a little sad and somewhat gray.

    I like the mention of books read at certain times of the year. I find that true for me. When we lived in the midwest, I definitely read different things in the winter than the other seasons. Now that retirement has taken us to nice weather in winter, I'm not reading the same way. At least I don't think so. I'm going to have to go back and examine my reading.

  17. Nan - THANK YOU! That was a fascinating article. I'm so glad Vintage decided to reissue his novels. They are still not widely available in stores, and my library system only has Revolutionary Road and a collection of stories. An order to amazon will be placed soon. Will also add the bio Rachel suggested (library doesn't have that either). Thanks again for thinking of us.

    Margot - Definitely a 40's/50's feel to the story. I think the seasonal reading idea would make a good post.


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