Richard Yates was a bright star with this first novel in 1961. It was
nominated for the National Book Award in 1962. He was competing
with, among ten finalists,
Walker Percy —–The Moviegoer
J.D. Salinger —Franny and Zooey
Joseph Heller — Catch-22
Pretty heavy competition–and six others! The Moviegoer won.
In Revolutionary Road we meet Frank and April Wheeler–she’s
29 years old, and when the book opens, she’s the star in a community
theater event–she flops. She has had a difficult childhood, brought
up by various aunts with occasional visits from her casino-hopping
parents with their current amours. Awkward.
Frank works in a business office, in fact one that his father once
had ties to, and hates his job. And we learn that he never really had
a close relationship with his father. Awkward.
Into this 1950s scene we are thrown headfirst into a story with
dialogue that sweeps the reader along—realistic enough that you
are cringing when Alice and Frank walk on eggs in their conversations
to deter or delay another out-and-out ugly confrontation.
The Wheelers are stuck in their lives as they see it, stuck in the
plastic suburbia, with big plastic houses, plastic cocktail parties and
meaningless futures. A way out is conceived—drop everything and
move to Paris. April can get a job and Frank can finally find himself
and find what he has always been intellectually meant to do.
Trouble is, Frank isn’t sure exactly what that is. But April is adamant
and begins making plans to sell the house and move in the fall.
The plot thickens when two barriers to the plan arise.
I’m not kidding when I say that the book moves along quickly.
I’m reminded of reading Rosemary’s Baby, never putting it down,
can still remember standing over the stove fixing dinner with the
book in my hand. That was August 1968.
That’s the way Revolutionary Road was for me. Yates had his finger
on the right buttons to keep the story moving. One reviewer said
it was humorous. Another said she cried twice. The only trouble is,
I didn’t laugh or cry. I could never quite connect with either of them.
Maybe if his name had not been Frank. I’m all right with
the wife’s name being April. I just couldn’t relate to her EXCEPT
that for the first 100 pages or so, I saw her as Betty Draper in the
TV show Mad Men. Couldn’t get it out of my mind.
The show could have been taken right off these black and white
printed pages. Really. But this book was written in 1961 and
Mad Men premiered in 2007. After a while, I let Mad Men fade
away and picked up the storyline again.
Yates was a very good writer. If he was not the first to write about the
phoniness of modern, or 1950s, life, he certainly did a good job of it.
There were other authors writing about married life in those post
WWII times– about the first in family college graduates, the first
time career path opportunities unlike any other time in America–
and the upper middle class “finding themselves”.
John Updike, John Cheever, John O’Hara come to mind. But today
Richard Yates is considered a forgotten writer with a one-hit wonder.
Why? How did he slip through the cracks?
And, since this novel was so heavily applauded, was it, should it have
been award-winning material?
I looked at my old list of candidates for Ten Great American Novels.
(You can, too—type in Challenge: Ten Great American Novels in that
search box up on the right of this page)
and couldn’t bring myself to replace any of them with Revolutionary Road.
What is your opinion?