‘Builders’ by Richard Yates

Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is the perfect album of short story collections. ‘Builders’ is the final story and is the ideal bookend to the preceding ten. It takes on the cliché of the failed writer and forms from it something true.

Bob Prentice is a young romantic, a Sensitive Writer backed by his wife Joan, who discovers an unusual personal ad for a freelance writer. In responding, Bob meets Bernie Silver, a New York hackie who’s looking for a ghost writer to work his homespun anecdotes into a bestselling book. Bernie is no writer himself, but he has a grand theory that he wants Bob to follow – a story is a house: start with the foundations, add the walls and the roof and don’t forget the windows.

It’s not quite a scam: the intent to defraud doesn’t seem to be there anyways, but it’s far from what Bob’s enthusiasm – and vanity – leads him to initially believe. But he gives it a go and the Prentices become friendly with the Silvers, for a short time at least. Bob starts with the foundations of Bernie’s stories  and builds adequate-enough houses with them, but the bestseller list remains elusive.

There is something of the delusional about Bernie Silver: sweet, but pitiful, and his friendship with Bob falters; perhaps the foundations simply aren’t strong enough. The same could be said for Bob and Joan’s marriage, which falls apart under the weight of itself in the end. The story ends on a melancholic note, signing off on the tone of the preceding ten preceding stories.

And where are the windows? Where does the light come in? Bernie, old friend, forgive me, but I haven’t got the answer to that one. I’m not even sure if there are any windows in this particular house. Maybe the light is just going to have to come in as best it can, through whatever chinks and cracks have been left in the builder’s faulty craftsmanship, and if that’s the case you can be sure that nobody feels worse about it than I do. God knows, Bernie; God there certainly ought to be a window around here somewhere, for all of us.

From Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Vintage, 2006

‘A Glutton for Punishment’ by Richard Yates

Few writers capture the crushing pain and disillusionment that can accompany everyday life quite as well as Richard Yates, and this story illustrates it beautifully. Here we have a classic Yates protagonist, Walter Henderson, a rather unassuming young man who works in a Manhattan office in the heart of NYC. A graceful and gracious loser all his life, Walter is convinced he is about to be fired from his job, and in spite of his wife’s best efforts to make their home life as bearable as possible, the weight of this expectation hangs over Walter on a permanent basis. In writing this story, Yates exposes some of the anxieties of life, the sense of pride and respect we all crave from those around us. Moreover, it also highlights the different roles a woman was expected to play back in the late 1950s/early ‘60s, the various modes she had to adopt irrespective of how taxing or frustrating they proved to be. A period piece that still has some relevance today.

Collected in Eleven Kinds of Loneliness, Little, Brown and Co. 1962, currently available as a Vintage Classic