Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961) Methuen (2001) 355 pp
I felt before reading it that Revolutionary Road was going to be one of those books that is an experience to read. Because I’d already put the book in such high esteem, I put off reading it, either to prolong my anticipation and leave it as a big reward for some future date or to protect my unsubstantiated preconception and avoid being let down. But since Sam Mendes has opted to reunite his wife Kate with Leo for a film adaptation of this book for awards season, I finally pulled it out to read before my mind was tainted by previews, critiques, hype, awards, etc., not to mention the film itself (I’m a big fan of good film, by the way, just not as big a fan as I am of good books and the freedom they provide the audience). Also, I always like the illusion that I stumbled on to a masterpiece in isolation, and I’m always disappointed when I’m about to enjoy something that suddenly becomes a phenomenon — or a flop.
It’s 1955 in the Connecticut suburbs of New York City. This is a period and place that is still idealized ad naseum, but what we get here is a fine glimpse at the underside during the Age of Anxiety. In one of the most fantastic first chapters I’ve ever read, Yates presents a very pleasant community scene: the Laurel Players are about to perform the play The Petrified Forest. It’s been a lot of work. Here are the first, fantastic lines:
The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and wonderful group of people to work with.
“It hasn’t been an easy job,” he said, his glasses glinting soberly around the stage. “We’ve had a lot of problems here, and quite frankly i’d more or less resigned myself not to expect too much. Well, listen. Maybe this sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time.”
The play (such an apt motif with which to begin this book — both the play chosen and the play as a general endeavor) doesn’t turn out so well as expected. All of the players — not to mention the community — are disappointed. April Wheeler, whom we watch wilt on stage, is humiliated. Her husband Frank, whose knuckles are cracked and red from sucking on them nervously throughout the performance, finds April dressing down alone backstage.
He closed the door and started toward her with the corners of his mouth stretched tight in a look he hoped would be full of love and humor and compassion; what he planned to do was bend down and kiss her and say “Listen: you were wonderful.” But an almost imperceptible recoil of her shoulders told him that she didn’t want to be touched, which left him uncertain what to do with his hands, and that was when it occurred to him that “You were wonderful” might be exactly the wrong thing to say — condescending, or at the very least naive and sentimental, and much too serious.
“Well,” he said instead. “I guess it wasn’t exactly a triumph or anything, was it?”
This sets off what was probably the most painful part of the book for me. There are a lot of almost imperceptible movements and tones that eventually pull Frank and April into an awful fight on the side of the road, illuminated by passing car lights. Yates makes us sit through all of it – excruciating!
The book proceeds to enter the intimacy of the Wheeler home. April opts to sleep on the couch, confusing their two young children, whose initial steps into the Wheeler family have a tragic tinge all its own. Here is a passage the morning after the fight. Frank is digging a hole, stewing silently about the past:
And I didn’t even want a baby, he thought to the rhythm of his digging. Isn’t that the damnedest thing? I didn’t even want a baby any more than she did. Wasn’t it true, then, that everything in his life from that point on had been a succession of things he hadn’t really wanted to do? Taking a hopelessly dull job to prove he could be as responsible as any other family man, moving to an overpriced, genteel apartment to prove his mature belief in the fundamentals of orderliness and good health, having another child to prove that the first one hadn’t been a mistake, buying a house in the country because that was the next logical step and he had to prove himself capable of taking it. Proving, proving; and for no other reason than that he was married to a woman who had somehow managed to put him forever on the defensive, who loved him when he was nice, who lived according to what she happened to feel like doing and who might at any time — this was the hell of it — who might at any time of day or night just happen to feel like leaving him. It was as ludicrous and as simple as that.
But the book does not become an extended fight between man and wife, sometimes using children as leverage. Just as I was beginning to get drained by their battle, Frank and April got tired of it too (and we’re only at the beginning). They are tired of a lot of things. First and foremost, creating the impression that they are part of the community in which they reside. They know they are superior.
Intelligent, thinking people could take things like [the failed play] in their stride, just as they took the larger absurdities of deadly dull jobs in the city and deadly dull homes in the suburbs. Economic circumstance might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated. The important thing, always, was to remember who you were.
In a desperate act to solve the problems in their marriage, Frank and April decide it’s time to release themselves from the suffocation of American suburbs and move to Paris, where April is going to work so Frank has a chance to discover himself. With tenderness and intimacy Frank and April begin their fragile plans. The book is not, then, entirely devoid of hope. Which makes it all the more crushing.
All of this is not to suggest that Frank and April are merely victims. They instigate plenty of their troubles. They are selfish. They use their children as leverage in fights. They never quite get their footing, but partially that is because they are too proud to do what it would take. Yet we care for them.
The plot itself is excellent as a whole, but individual parts of it are not necessarily unique. That’s not to say that each individual part is not rewarding. On the contrary, Yates’s writing is a reward in and of itself. His ability to make the reader and characters intimates is masterful. I felt their pain, not because I was recalling my own experience but because I felt like I was there, in their room. When they shouted, it hurt my ears and made my breathing shallow, my shoulders tense. I also felt hope at the sight of an unexpected smile. Furthermore, Yates does this with straightforward, unassuming prose. The passages I pulled above have nothing in them that calls attention to the skill of the author. They are simple, yet poignant. You’ll notice that I quoted large portions — I wanted to keep going! The words flow, always disclosing more, always moving, constantly both confirming the meaning of the last sentence even while it subverts our expectations.
It was a wonderful experience, and the story is beautiful — but who can say why? I’m not sick enough to want to involve myself in, say, my neighbor’s pain just for the experience. I’m not sure why when a writer succeeds in presenting it like this, I enjoy the experience so intensely. My guess is that it’s partially because Yates, in this book, also manages to uncover the tenderness between Frank and April, two vulnerable people who depend upon each other for their happiness. All it takes to suck the energy out of Frank’s day is a sour look from April. I’m not saying this is because her happiness is his prime concern; I know it is because he fears the ensuing battle and what it does to him. Nevertheless, when one encroaches this closely to the most intimate aspects of family relationships, one cannot help but feel for these people, despite how ugly they can be towards each other — perhaps because of how ugly they can be towards each other. Against such a backdrop as Revolutionary Road, tenderness and vulnerability come out in sharp relief. Perhaps that’s what’s so attractive to me.
It’s a painful book that indeed evokes reverential silence, both for the characters and for the author.