December 20, 2008
Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road
It’s rare enough that I have time to re-read books these days, so for Revolutionary Road to earn the rarest accolade – a third read! – it must be pretty special, right? With Yates’s star so firmly in the ascendant, it’s hard to believe that less than ten years ago, he was forgotten and out of print on both sides of the Atlantic. Novelist Stewart O’Nan’s 1999 essay ‘The Lost World of Richard Yates’ helped sow the seeds for the Yates revival, which in the UK began in 2001 with the reissue of Revolutionary Road. An Amazon review I posted suggests I read it about a year later, by which time (according to my copy) it was already in its fourth printing: clearly the Yates resurrection was already gathering pace. I loved the book, thought it a blinding wonder, and was encouraged to read all his other books – which I’d just finished doing when I began this blog. I re-read it in 2006, and found it somewhat diminished. I was inspired to make a third visit because the Yates revival is itself enjoying a revival, and nothing succeeds like success; plus, I wanted one final chance to fix Frank and April Wheeler in my mind before they are forever rendered into Winslet and DiCaprio.
Revolutionary Road (1961) was Yates’s first novel and is widely considered to be his best. I’m not so sure of that, though it does have a unity of direction and quality of invention that many of his later novels lacked. In particular, here there is a compelling storyline where his other novels tend to comprise scenes from a (rotten) life; and, uniquely I think among his novels, there is no character very obviously based on Yates’s drunken mother. In other respects it has the flaws of a first novel: Yates seems unable to keep his thumb off the scale, with an insistence on telling us everything his characters think and feel, and on explaining all. I would like sometimes to work it out for myself – or, even better, to remain puzzled. And the relentless belittling of the characters and places in the book looks a lot less fresh as a Yates stalwart than when reading him new.
What Yates does have, however, is significant. The word most often used in praise of his writing is “honesty” – and he has that, of the most brutal kind, in spades. He is clear-eyed and unsentimental with all his characters – though at times I sensed a reverse sentimentality in his willingness to do them down so readily – and in particular with the runts of his litter, Frank and April Wheeler. Even the aforesaid tendency never to be silent about what his characters are thinking is often to good effect; when April and Frank have an argument at the beginning of the book – a sign of underlying tensions which will break out devastatingly as the story progresses – Frank’s observes April “out of the car and running away in the headlights, quick and graceful, a little too wide in the hips.” His accounts of domestic bust-ups are painfully true. “He couldn’t even tell whether he was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power to forgive.” He never turns away to avoid the characters’ – or the reader’s – blushes.
Indeed, if honesty is Yates’s best policy, it is April and Frank’s unwillingness to accommodate one another’s feelings with the everyday compromises of marriage which contains the roots of their downfall. They are so worried about ending up “face to face, in total darkness, with the knowledge that you didn’t know who you were” that they are determined to direct their own lives. It’s the 1950s, and they live comfortably on the suburban east coast of America, but April in particular is set on moving to Europe. She tells Frank:
You’ll be finding yourself. You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking. You’ll have time. For the first time in your life you’ll have time to find out what it is you want to do.
Frank is “instantly frightened” by the plan – what if it turns out that there’s nothing he’s good at? April assures him: “It’s got nothing to do with definite, measurable talents – it’s your very essence that’s being stifled here.” So their lives are frozen in a classic stasis: unable to stay, unwilling to leave. Equally trapped are their neighbours, the Campbells and the Givings, on whom Yates wastes no sympathy:
[Mrs Givings] cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible; she cried because none of the girls had liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later; she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.
The territory here is the existential horror of stable prosperity, of the working life, and in particular of post-war malaise. (See also Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), Joseph Heller’s Something Happened (1974), or even Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt (1922; different war) – all of which I highly recommend). For Frank, his happiest time was during and the aftermath of the war, where he fought in Germany. “For the first time in his life he was admired, and the fact that girls could actually want to go to bed with him was only slightly more remarkable than his other concurrent discovery – that men, and intelligent men at that, could actually want to listen to him talk.” Now that life has stopped rising and has reached a plateau, Frank struggles to cope. It happens to everyone (if they’re lucky), but few would react so self-destructively as Frank and April do, talking themselves into circles, through bad decisions and out the other side. Their hope that moving to Europe means that “they would be new and better people from now on” is futile, as wherever they go, they bring themselves along.
What a reread of Revolutionary Road reveals, as well as a relentless negativity in the (solipsistic) authorial voice that is much less bracing second and third time around, are some clever details such a foreshadowing in literary terms near the beginning – which cannot be mentioned for fear of spoiling it. If the book is about the ups and downs of honesty with others and with ourselves, and the terrifying compulsion for change (Annie Proulx’s “if you can’t fix it, you’ve got to stand it” might not have been bad advice to the Wheelers), it is also about the ups and downs of Yates’s commitment to honesty, and how it can be irritating in one paragraph and heartbreaking in the next. To me, Revolutionary Road is best judged as a gateway drug to the world of Yates, which contains work no less great such as Cold Spring Harbor, The Easter Parade and Young Hearts Crying – and indeed many of his stories – rather than as a stand-alone masterpiece without equal or sequel.