Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Flashback, March 1961: Richard Yates’ Searing Suburban Satire, ‘Revolutionary Road,’ Published

Even though it depicted a postwar trend—Americans’ adjustment to suburban life—Revolutionary Road, published in March 1961 by Little, Brown & Company, harked back to earlier sources of inspiration. 

The attractive couple at its heart—Frank and April Wheeler, in their late 20s with a pair of children, about to plunge into infidelity, alcohol abuse and despair—are reminiscent of the troubled married duo Dick and Nicole Diver of Tender Is the Night, and its realistic, irony-tinged style owes much to that novel’s creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

At the same time, critics hailed Richard Yates for his unique, melancholy recounting of the dream that beckons to the Wheelers: chucking their humdrum, materialistic lives in Connecticut for a more low-cost, bohemian and creative existence in Paris—the same aspirations that lured Fitzgerald and wife Zelda to become expatriates in the 1920s.

Some critics have felt that Yates never equaled his achievement in this first novel of his. But the same might be said of Orson Welles with Citizen Kane.

(As I mentioned in a blog post from 12 years ago, by no means do I share this dismissive view of Yates’ other fiction. Whether in his short stories or novels, he is, I believe, our postwar bard of disenchantment.)

“The emotions of fiction are autobiographical,” Yates once observed to friend Grace Schulman, “but the facts never are.” That applied to Revolutionary Road. Although the novel was not strictly speaking a roman a clef, it reflected Yates’ frustration in simultaneously trying to write fiction, stay financially solvent, and maintain a marriage crumbling under the strain of his affairs and alcoholism.

The wonder is that his portrait of Frank is shot through less with self-pity than with withering scorn for his self-delusions and failures of will. Frank works in New York for ''the dullest job you can possibly imagine,'' with the New York firm Knox Business Machines, but he thinks he’s made for another life “as an intense, nicotine-stained, Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man.”

Having returned in the early 1950s from just the kind of expatriate life Frank desires, Yates saw the dangers lurking for the intellectually pretentious: someone culturally aware enough to speak of the latest philosophical fashion, but all too willing to surrender to the all-too-easy office girl, to the liquor that takes the edge off the day, and to the better-paying job supposedly needed to keep up with the Joneses in the new suburban nirvanas cropping up around the country. Or, as Yates sums up Frank’s thinking:

“Intelligent, thinking people could take things like this 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 circumstances 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.”

Unfortunately, Frank’s existence has been bound up in forgetting who he is. He welcomes “being contaminated” as his means of avoiding discovering whether he really is talented and ambitious enough to make a career of writing fiction.

In the book’s opening scene, April realizes the limits of her creative talents far more quickly and painfully. Despite her good looks (“a tall, ash blonde with a patrician beauty that no amount of amateur lighting could disguise”), she flops even in the “little theater” amateur production mounted in their town. The aftermath of that disaster—a bitter post-performance argument on the drive home with Frank—prefigures the volatile summer that follows.

At least April has the energy to plan for a more fulfilling life, as well as a touching if absurd faith that Frank is gifted and dogged enough to achieve it. But, as they come face to face with the collapse of their hopes, Yates also presents her with the novel’s most pungent, memorable line: “No one forgets the truth; they just get better at lying.”

The address that becomes the scene of the Wheelers’ undoing—Revolutionary Road—is ironic, implying that Wheelers are unequal to the spirit of independence that founded the nation and that they seek to embody in their quest for the creative life.

“Pessimistic,” “depressing,” “bleak”—all adjectives that aptly describe Yates’ work without adequately conveying the power of it. For that, it might be best to absorb passages like the following, where Yates evokes the deadening routine experienced by the commuters who stream daily into the city:

“How small and neat and comically serious the other men looked, with their grey-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 mid-town 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, forever shifting papers and frowning into telephones, acting out their passionate little dumb show under the supreme indifference of the rolling spring clouds.”

Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award the following year, losing out to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. After abortive attempts by director John Frankenheimer and actor Patrick O’Neal to bring the book to the screen in the 1960s and 1970s, director Sam Mendes succeeded in doing so in 2008, in an adaptation starring wife Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio (in the image accompanying this post).

Though faithful to the book and critically acclaimed, the movie enjoyed only tepid results at the box office. Its subject matter is dark at any period, but Americans plunged into a recession during the 2008 holiday season were particularly not in a mood for the romantic hopes and tribulations of the Wheelers.

In other ways, though, the times may have caught up with Yates and his vision. The world he depicted with such unflinching fidelity to truth in Revolutionary Road—the synthetic suburban dreams, the Madison Avenue suits who manufactured a glossy future by day when they weren’t carrying on trysts afterward, the photogenic, seemingly perfect couples who ended up in drunken screaming matches—was recreated by AMC for Mad Men. (Indeed, that series’ showrunner, Matthew Weiner said he would never have bothered to create it if he had read Revolutionary Road beforehand, remembered ChristinaWayne, who was senior VP of scripted series/miniseries for AMC at that time.)

But it appears now that the book’s admirers have succeeded in moving the novel from cult to more mainstream status, where it can be appreciated for what Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford called “its apparent effortlessness, its complete accessibility, its luminous particularity, its deep seriousness toward us human beings -- about whom it conjures shocking insights and appraisals.”

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