Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates
The second chapter opens with a Kafkaesque scene:
He woke up soaked with sweat, breathing stale and fetid air. A naked light bulb shone in his eyes and he found he was in a steel-framed bunk slung by chains from the wall, like a bunk in a troopship or a jail.
“. . . Everybody out,” a voice called, and there were other sounds: groans and curses, wretched coughing and hawking, a loud fart, the creak and bang of bunks being folded back and clamped against the wall. “Let’s go, let’s go. Everybody out.”
When he sat up a hand closed around his shoulder and rolled him onto the floor. He was wearing grey cotton pajamas that were much too big for him: the pants tripped his stumbling bare feet and the sleeves hung to his fingertips. Swaying and squinting under the lights, he rolled up the sleeves first, disclosing a loose plastic bracelet that read Wilder John C. He bent over to roll up the pants but was kicked from behind and fell to his hands, and he looked up frightened into the angry face of a Negro in pajamas like his own.
“Watch your ass, man. This here’s the corridor. You got no business hunkerin’ down playin’ with yourself; get up and walk.”
And he did. Steel-mesh panels were being drawn across the folded bunks to prevent anyone from using them: this was indeed the corridor, the place for walking. It was yellow and green and brown and black; it was neither very long nor very wide, but it was immensely crowded with men of all ages from adolescence to senility, whites and Negroes and Puerto Ricans, half of them walking one way and half in the other, the dismaying variety of their faces moving into the glare of lights and then into shadows and then into the lights again. Some were talking one another and some talked to themselves, but most were silent. He felt warm grit under his feet until he stepped on something slick; then he saw that the black floor ahead was scattered with gobs of phlegm. A few of the walking men wore dirty paper slippers, and he envied them; a few were smoking, with packs of cigarettes in their pajama-top pockets, which puckered the roof of his mouth. Then he saw that some weren’t wearing pajama tops but straightjackets, and he wanted to whimper like a child.
There were closed windows at both ends of the corridor, covered with steel mesh: the light outside was drab – either an early grey morning or a late grey afternoon – and there was nothing to see but air shafts and windowless walls.
Near the middle of the corridor stood a Negro orderly in hospital greens, and he hurried toward him with a mouthful of questions – Look: where’s my clothes? Where’s my money? Where’s a phone: What’s the deal here? – but when he confronted the man he felt small and shy and all he knew was that his bladder was about to burst.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Where’s the bathroom?”
And he followed the pointed finger into a bright stinking latrine where men squatted on toilet bowls or stood jockeying for position at a long urinal trough.
John Wilder is going on forty with a successful career in sales and a stable family; and he’s increasingly irrational, paranoid, and monstrously self-obsessed.
Yates, who is remembered for writing about the mundane sadness of domestic life in a flat emotionless prose, tackles new territory here, and the result is probably the weakest of his novels.
The novel is disappointing but not without its peaks, and Yates reminds us from time to time that he speaks “for weakness, for neurasthenic darkness, for struggle without hope and for the self-defeating passions of ignorance.”
He concentrates on alcoholism and insanity in this unrelentingly realist novel, but I could only empathize with the main character in flashes and was left wondering if the story would have been better narrated through the eyes of John Wilder’s wife. Yates gives her the first and last chapters, but she has little to do with the main part of the narrative, which leaves us trapped in the disintegrating mind of her husband.