Builders (short story)
Best-known for his electrifying first novel Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates then went on to write the same story, just as beautifully, several times over- sometimes making it longer (Young Hearts Crying) shorter (Cold Spring Harbour) or with two female protagonists (Easter Parade). However, some of his short stories are actually so different from the somewhat unrelenting novels that they deserve to be plucked out and considered separately as self-contained works of art.
‘Builders’ has a lot in common with another of Yates’s short stories about raw new army recruits, ‘Jody Rolled the Bones,’ (one of my favourite ever titles in literature). In both stories, life is unsatisfying, as always in Yates, but there is a certain amount of dignity in work, in doing something properly if you’re going to do it at all.
The narrator of ‘Builders,’ Robert Prentice, a broke and talented young writer looking for work, finds himself an unenviable job as a ghostwriter for a New York cabdriver, Bernie Silver, who can’t write for toffee but who has big dreams for his true-life stories. It’s a fairly tenuous project and one that‘s almost certainly doomed, but as Prentice correctly points out, whole empires have been founded on sillier ideas.
‘Builders,’ is all about the ability to understand someone else, and how once we’ve mastered that, even our most base and self-serving projects can be elevated to the status of art- and how the two together can be something as huge and dignified as building a house- with windows, as Bernie says, so the light can get in. Bernie may be deluded and impossible, but you still get the sense of Prentice's sneaking care and regard for him- and Yates‘ pity for both Bernie Silvers and Robert Prentice shines through too.