The New York Sun - July 2, 2008






Reconsiderations: Richard Yates's 'Revolutionary Road'
by Benjamin Lytal


When "Revolutionary Road" first appeared in 1961, some critics shrugged. Here was another indictment of suburban malaise. "I don't suppose one picture window is necessarily going to destroy our personalities," the book's hero jokes. Its young author, Richard Yates, was praised for his fine handling of language, but the novel itself was called passé and pointlessly cruel. Some critics, including Alfred Kazin, disagreed, but when Yates died in 1992 he was largely forgotten, a writer who had unfortunately written his best book first. And that book, though beloved of writers, had missed its rendezvous with the popular imagination.

Now we are nearing the climax of a long Yates revival, which reached an earlier peak in 1999 with an article by Stewart O'Nan in the Boston Review. Now all of Yates's books have been elegantly reissued, and a major biography has been published and widely reviewed. On December 26, a new film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, and directed by Sam Mendes of "American Beauty," will put the gist of "Revolutionary Road" across to millions who have never heard of Yates. (A film adaptation of his second-best novel, "The Easter Parade," from 1976, is also planned.) Like his hero F. Scott Fitzgerald, who experienced a posthumous revival mid-century, Yates is getting a second act, and it will be bigger than his first.

Americans are ready for Yates, in part because suburban conformity no longer ignites our passions. This is crucial, because "Revolutionary Road" is much more than an attack on suburbia. Its heroes, Frank and April Wheeler, once bohemian lovers in Greenwich Village, are indeed living in suburban Connecticut when the novel begins, and as their marriage turns toxic, it is the "deadly dull" suburbs they blame. Frank Wheeler, a Columbia graduate and a veteran of existentialist bull sessions, believes they are an anomaly in their community: "Economic circumstances might force you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from being contaminated."

But Frank's attitudes belong to Yates no more than Emma Bovary's belong to Flaubert. A romantic and a narcissist, Frank planned as a teenager to run away from it all, studying railroad maps and even shopping for his hobo's costume in the window of the Army-Navy store. But he never found the courage to go. "Revolutionary Road" is the converse of "On the Road" (1957); it tells the more likely story, of the legions who wanted to hit the road but were content, ultimately, to stay at home and simmer. In this sense, Yates's debut can be seen as a hinge of postwar fiction, joining the literature of suburban realism to the literature of panic practiced by J.D. Salinger or Ken Kesey.

But the most obvious point of comparison in 1961 was not Salinger or Kerouac, but Sloan Wilson, author of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1955). In Wilson's novel, which presented the dilemmas of an alienated, overworked suburban commuter as problems waiting to be solved, the drab-costumed hero turns down a promotion, successfully explaining that he needs more time with his kids, and his boss understands.

Yates's characters cannot quit the rat race so easily. So many critics of social convention make their heroes into aliens, gifted innocents who learn to mistrust the world around them. Think of Holden Caulfield or John Cheever's famous swimmer. Yates's genius was to make Frank Wheeler not a stranger, but an exemplar of society — a complainer whose rebellion is only a catalog of received ideas.

When his wife, April, proposes an escape — to Paris, where she can get a job with NATO while Frank discovers himself — she begins to see that Frank no longer wants to leave, if he ever did. His desire for some kind of transcendence only represents a deeper impatience, an impatience that ruins most of their conversations. His status as an intellectual is a pose, the crystallization of a self-consciousness that prevents Frank from relaxing or ever thinking clearly. He is always seeing himself in mirrors. He ends one fight — declaring that his wife ought to have had an abortion — not because he has expressed himself clearly, but because his last statement had been "the perfect exit line."

There are no innocents in "Revolutionary Road," but there is one truth teller. John Givings, the schizophrenic son of the Wheelers' real estate agent, has, unlike his mother, nothing to gain by preserving appearances. An ex-mathematician, he is a profound literalist. He initially appreciates the Wheelers — he compliments April on being "female" rather than "feminine" — and is impressed by their decision to move to Europe. Likewise, the Wheelers can hear their own rhetoric in some of John's outbursts: "You want to play house, you got to have a job. You want to play very nice house, very sweet house, then you got to have a job you don't like." But when John hears that the Wheelers will not go to Europe, because April is pregnant again, he refuses to politely change the subject. "I wouldn't be surprised," he says to Frank, "if you knocked her up on purpose, just so you could spend the rest of your life hiding behind that maternity dress."

That remark triggers the Wheelers' final breakdown. The novel's conclusion is famously depressing, but it was evident from the first, memorable scene, when a community theater's inaugural production falls apart. "The virus of calamity, dormant and threatening all these weeks, had erupted now and spread," until it overtakes even the ex-drama student, April Wheeler, mother of two. The community tries to stage a romance, but tragedy is unstoppable.

Have the 1950s become so distant from the present that they seem potentially classical, a forum for mayhem and tribulation? A comparison of Yates with all his contemporary rivals — Cheever, Percy, John Updike — suggests that authorial distance sets Yates apart. Even Fitzgerald, with Flaubert the writer Yates most consciously modeled himself upon, always expressed tenderness toward his troubled characters. Yates isn't interested in expressing tenderness. His characters are doomed, and he leaves it at that. One of his many rejection letters from the New Yorker complained of his "mean-spirited view of things." Yates was never published there, while "Precious John," as Yates called Updike, found ample space.

And yet we should not love an author simply because he is stern. Critics as reliable as James Atlas and Anatole Broyard have fretted at the even pace of disaster set by Yates for his characters. Mr. Atlas begged of Yates that "there must be some tempering sense of grace and pity," and Broyard asked whether we are supposed to forgive the Wheelers their faults, or examine them like entomologists. But as Richard Ford, a natural champion of Yates, has pointed out, studied authorial distance can be a virtue. Like viewers of a Greek tragedy, we can view Frank Wheeler in the abstract, as an implementation of fate, and yet his tragedy is felt, and we learn from it.

Yates never meant us to identify with Frank Wheeler, but his inerrant realism brought Frank too close for many readers to bear. Now, half a century later, we are wise to the suburbs, and Frank Wheeler plays a timeless role in a classical scene. He is a victim of his own hubris, an unexceptional man who wants to be a Romantic hero.

In early interviews, Yates was surprised that critics took Frank Wheeler for himself, as they had taken Emma Bovary for Flaubert. Yates would have liked the comparison to Flaubert: Both of them were perfectionists and wrote perfect sentences. But it is thematically, now, that we can see "Revolutionary Road" as our "Madame Bovary."