It has been exactly a half century since Richard Yates’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, splashed down in the midst of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot. The theme of the emptiness of suburban existence had been explored before, but Tennessee Williams said at the time, “If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don’t know what it is.”
That the American Dream of a nice house, a lucrative and reliable career, and attractive stay-at-home wife with kids has become harder to achieve in post-millennial society in no way mitigates the power of the book. Yates’s quietly intense narrative illuminates how such a life can leave us gasping for air, worn to the point where mediocrity is acceptable, and at some point standing in front of a mirror asking, “What happened?”
April and Frank Wheeler, in the grip of suburbanite ennui, decide to pull stakes in the ironically-named Revolutionary Hill Estates and began a new, more bohemian life in Paris. They plan their escape in late-night martini- and cigarette-fueled talks which deliver them from the realities of soul-deadening conformity and security.
But Frank’s boss at Knox Business Machines has big plans for him, and there is the complication of their two children. After the Wheelers announce their intentions to their friends and associates, their circle reveals itself to be a sucking vortex. Yet Yates’s unflinching portrait shows how the couple’s own character flaws and neuroses belie their erstwhile fantasy and doom them to unfulfilled lives.
It is the mentally ill son of their real estate broker who provides a deranged but compelling counterpoint to the cocoon of propriety that at once provides for and suffocates the Wheelers. John Givings helps us formulate one of the book’s thematic questions: Is adjustment to insanity sane?
Yates himself described the overarching theme of his work in an interview with the Boston Review shortly before his death in 1992: “I suspect it is a simple one, that most human beings are inescapably alone.” In Revolutionary Road, which the New York Times called “a remarkable and deeply troubling book,” Yates uncovers motivations and deconstructs self-delusions on every page.
Here’s an excerpt in which Frank observes some of his fellow cubicle jockeys while waiting for the train in Grand Central Station:
How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their gray-flecked crew cuts and their button down collars and their brisk little hurrying feet. There were endless desperate swarms of them, hurrying through the station and the streets, and an hour from now they would all be still. The waiting midtown office buildings would swallow them up and contain them, so that to stand in one tower looking out across the canyon to another would be to inspect a great silent insectarium displaying hundreds of tiny pink men in white shirts…
The beautifully written book, whose critically acclaimed adaptation came to the big screen in 2008 with Titanic co-stars Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet, channels Age of Anxiety chroniclers like John Cheever, yet the authorial voice is distant, once removed, bespeaking the very alienation that plagues the emotional lives of the characters.
Benjamin Lytal of the New York Sun wrote a retrospective at the time of the film’s release, positing that Yates had brought “the literature of suburban realism to the literature of panic produced by J.D. Salinger and Ken Kesey.”
Richard Yates understood, all those years ago. His unsentimental and prescient story created an emotive wellspring from which suburban angst-fests like Ordinary People, The Ice Storm, and Oscar-winner American Beauty would later draw inspiration. Its message remains clear and relevant today, urging us to look honestly at the traps which may lie in wait as we make life choices, including those sprung by our own worst selves.
Mark Ellis is a journalist and writer from Portland, Oregon.