When our edition was published it was my intention to reread it, but career demands, other literary works, including all of Yates’ later novels and short stories, encroached on my reading time, so on various bookshelves in the homes we’ve lived, this edition nestled in waiting. The catalyst for recently rereading Revolutionary Road was the film of it, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Reportedly, the book was “discovered” as a major American literary work by Kate Winslet and her husband, the film’s director, Sam Mendes. The film seemed faithful to the novel so I finally read the reprint edition to see for myself. In the process I was reminded why I was so taken with Yates’ work in the first place.
Since I am an “old” production guy, I have to describe the edition, republished without a jacket but in a library binding, 88 point binder’s boards, Arrestox "C" weight cloth with gold foil stamping on the spine, 5–1 /2 x 8–1/2 trim size, headbands and footbands, printed on acid free, cream colored high-opacity 50 lb paper. It was probably printed in Ann Arbor, Michigan where we printed the majority of our books. It looked as new as the day it was republished. So, I have come full circle with the book, reading it soon after it was first published, reprinting it when it went out of print, seeing the movie, and now finally rereading my reprint edition of the novel, with more than 40 years intervening.
As I said I thought the movie closely followed the book but after rereading Revolutionary Road, I am struck by its extreme faithfulness. Maybe this is because Yates’ elegantly developed plot moves chronologically and with an inevitability that drives the novel to its conclusion, making it so adaptable to the screen. But mostly, it is Yates’ living dialogue and although I do not have the screenplay to compare, I am certain much of it was wisely lifted from the novel itself.
When I first read the novel I was going through a divorce, having been married at the end of my junior year in college. My ex-wife and I were two kids, not unlike Frank and April in Revolutionary Road. I take literature very personally and the novel spoke directly to me as my own marriage was disintegrating and I was looking for answers.
The relationship of Yates’ men and women can be summed up by the titles of Yates’ two terrific short story collections: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness and Liars in Love. I was struck by these two themes, loneliness and self deception, as depicted in Revolutionary Road, relating those to my own experience, not only in my first marriage but the failed marriage of my parents (although they continued the pretense of a marriage to their deaths). Yates’ characters are perpetually struggling with one another, the men unsure of their masculinity, having to prove it in their work, their “need” to be loved by their wives, and to dominate women outside their marriages, while the women are highly neurotic and dependent but oddly headstrong and impulsive at the same time.
Towards the novel’s dénouement, April, exhausted from her struggles with her husband Frank, determined to follow through on aborting their third child, sends Frank off to work with a little kiss. Frank is confused, astounded, but grateful as he goes off to catch his train. April thinks it was “…a perfectly fair, friendly kiss, a kiss for a boy you’d just met at a party. The only real mistake, the only wrong and dishonest thing, was ever to have seen him as anything more than that. Oh, for a month or two, just for fun, it might be all right to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what the other most wanted to hear – until he was saying ‘I love you’ and she was saying ‘really, I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.’” Indeed, liars in love. It perfectly described my own experience and I’ve been hooked on Yates ever since.
Yates characters wear different personas, playacting their way through their lives, with a natural capacity for self deception and disingenuousness. The book begins with a play in which April acts in a community theatre production. For a month after April finds she is pregnant with this third child, she and Frank go through their own elaborate play, she wanting an abortion (supposedly for Frank’s sake) and Frank wanting the child (supposedly for moral reasons). Subliminally he realizes that the pregnancy will put to rest April’s impetuous desire to move to Paris and thus leave them with a “comfortable” suburban life: “And so the way was clear for the quiet, controlled, dead serious debate with which they began to fill one after another of the calendar’s days, a debate that kept them both in a finely drawn state of nerves that was not at all unpleasant. It was very like a courtship….His main tactical problem, in this initial phase of the campaign, was to find ways of making his position attractive, as well as commendable. The visits to town and country restaurants were helpful in this connection; she had only to glance around her in such places to discover a world of handsome, graceful, unquestionably worthwhile men and women, who had somehow managed to transcend their environment – people who had turned dull jobs to their own advantage, who had exploited the system without knuckling under it, who would certainly tend, if they knew the facts of the Wheelers’ case, to agree with him.”
Yates tackles the suburban landscape, reminiscent of Cheever and Updike, something that did not resonate particularly with me when I first read the book, but after having lived in the Westport, Connecticut area for some thirty years, now has a special meaning. Yates’ portrayal is more scathing, depicting a desolate place where desperate people, lonely and unsure of themselves, toiling away in an era of placidity on the surface with deep anxiety running beneath. He describes the neighborhood as “invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves.” The women raise the kids in their manicured homes and the men do battle in the city, snaking their way on the commuter railroad with their hats and their newspapers. Yates describes Frank, “…riding to work, one of the youngest and healthiest passengers on the train, he sat with the look of a man condemned to a very slow, painless death. He felt middle-aged.” This is as sad a depiction of the American dream’s corruption as could have been conjured up by Fitzgerald.
Frank works at his father’s old firm, a veneration of cynicism on his part. He gets a job in the Sales Promotion Department at Knox Business Machines, deciding “it would be more fun not to mention his father in the interview at all.” “The sales what? [April inquired]….What does that mean you’re supposed to do?” “Who the hell knows? They explained it to me for half an hour and I still don’t know, and I don’t think they do either. No, but it’s pretty funny, isn’t it? Old Knox Business Machines. Wait’ll I tell the old man. Wait’ll he hears I didn’t even use his name.” “And so it started as a kind of joke. Others might fail to see the humor of it, but it filled Frank Wheeler with a secret, astringent delight as he discharged his lazy duties, walking around the office in a way that had lately become almost habitual with him, if not quite truly characteristic, since having been described by his wife as ‘terrifically sexy’ -- a slow catlike stride, proudly muscular but expressing a sleepy disdain of tension or hurry.” Work too, is nothing more than a performance, something without intrinsic meaning, like other aspects of their lives.
Paradoxically, the one character in the novel who does not suffer from self deception, is their real estate agent’s son, John, who is an inmate in a mental institution, one who occasionally visits the Wheelers when he is released to his parents. When he learns that the Wheelers are not going to move to France and that April is pregnant, he says to them, first referring to Frank, “Big man you got here, April…Big family man, solid citizen. I feel sorry for you. Still, maybe you deserve each other. Matter of fact, the way you look right now, I’m beginning to feel sorry for him too. I mean come to think of it, you must give him a pretty bad time, if making babies is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls….Hey, I’m glad of one thing, though? You know what I’m glad of? I’m glad I’m not gonna be that kid.”
Yates wrote six novels after Revolutionary Road. Among my favorites was Easter Parade, but Revolutionary Road stands on its own. He also had his short stories published in the two collections mentioned earlier, and, finally, he became more widely recognized with the publication of the Collected Stories of Richard Yates a few years ago. The wonderful introduction to this edition was written by Richard Russo who is yet another contemporary author influenced by Yates.
A must read article on Yates “The Lost World of Richard Yates; How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print” was published in the October/November 1999 issue of the Boston Review by Stewart O’Nan. He thoroughly covers Yates’ history and writing, but I was disappointed O’Nan failed to mention the edition of Revolutionary Road we kept in print for those ten years. Nonetheless, I would like to think our edition did its small part in keeping Yates’ extraordinary novel alive.