“‘You were too good and young and scared; you played right along with it, and that’s how the whole thing started. That’s how we both got committed to this enormous delusion – because that’s what it is, an enormous, obscene delusion – this idea that people have to resign from real life and ‘settle down’ when they have families. It’s the great sentimental lie of the suburbs…'”
“Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates (1961)
I came to the television show Mad Men relatively late, in Season Four. But once I started watching I was captivated as I have been by few shows in my past. When the series wrapped after the landmark episode Person to Person in May of 2015 I fully realized how deeply affected I had been by the show. Those of you who, like me, live your life exploring the past will know what I’m talking about. The way the show depicted the entire decade of the 1960’s was fascinating and with no more episodes to watch on Sunday nights I dove in to reading about the show and its inspirations. During my studies of the show, I kept running into two authors who’s work was continually being cited as having provided the origins of some of the characterizations and themes explored in the show. One author was John Cheever and the other was Richard Yates and in particular the book by Yates we are looking at today.
Revolutionary Road is the debut novel from Yates and tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple with two young children who live in the suburbs in Connecticut. Both have the aspirations of their youth fresh in their memory but they have settled and are now simply living life as they feel they are supposed to be living it. Frank works at a tedious job in the city while he is capable of much more. April stays home with the children and navigates the empty housewife world of their small town. When April, who once thought of becoming an actress, appears in a local production of The Petrified Forest and she realizes how poor she was in the play, she has something of an epiphany. Any dreams she may have had along these lines need to be abandoned and it is Frank who should be given the freedom to pursue a career as a writer; it is Frank who will elevate them above the conformity and the monotony of their current life.
Frank also has had dreams of success and certainly did not see himself living such a mundane life. His job affords him no satisfaction and the life he and his wife are living begins to cause a strain in his marriage. In an attempt to fill the gap, he begins an affair with a co-worker. One night, April surprises him by announcing that she thinks it would be best if the family picked up and moved to Paris. April has a job lined up there and this will allow Frank to stay at home and write. At first, Frank is aghast at his wife becoming the breadwinner but he soon comes around and takes to the idea as something must be done to alleviate the strain. The Wheelers have friends and neighbours, the Campbells, who feel that Frank and April are something of a glamourous couple. Shep Campbell is hopelessly in love with April. The busybody realtor lady who sold the Wheelers their home is always coming around and April tolerates her valiantly. When the Wheelers have the realtor and her husband over to supper, they bring with them their “insane” son who calmly but ruthlessly points out certain things to Frank and April that, while true, are difficult to hear. When Frank is suddenly offered a promotion and April becomes pregnant, the wheels begin to come off.
As good as this novel is, it’s quite hard to talk about, even harder, in a way, to read. The themes, events and relationships depicted in the story are all quite bleak. It is a stark commentary on life and family in the suburbs in the 1950’s. As a Leave It to Beaver fan, I’m often told condescendingly that life back in the day was not like it was depicted in the Cleaver household. While I understand that, I’ll often argue against it but the point being that while it may be a truer depiction, I will take the troubles and resolutions, the optimism of Mayfield over the destitute situation the Wheelers find themselves in out in Connecticut any day.
You could call this a horror story, not in the sense that people are being hunted and murdered but the Wheelers are indeed haunted by a monster of sorts. Revolutionary Road depicts a severe brokenness, perhaps not of body but of spirit, of the psyche. Frank and April find themselves in a desperate predicament. The crushing knowledge that they have somehow failed is on them like a shroud. And this isn’t the concrete failure of a lost loved one or getting fired or falling out with a friend; something tangible to be fought and overcome. No, the result of their realization is a harrowing depth of despair that has them clawing for answers when all they succeed in doing is clawing each other to death.
Make no mistake, this is a sad tale but it is an intriguing read all the same. And there’s even a sense of pride that comes from reading a quality novel with mid-century themes and settings that was actually written in mid-century. Richard Yates would go on to write eight more novels, all of them critically acclaimed but none of them good sellers. He died of emphysema in 1992. Interestingly, Larry David, co-creator of Seinfeld, based the character of Elaine Benes on a daughter of Richard Yates’ that David dated. Elaine’s father on the show is based on Yates; Alton Benes was portrayed by Lawrence Tierney.
In 2008, director Sam Mendes filmed Revolutionary Road starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. It is an excellent depiction of mid-century, featuring the commute on the train, office life, men wearing suits, etc. The critics loved the film and it earned Winslet a Golden Globe award and Michael Shannon does well as the catalyst for the Wheelers’ eventual downfall.
While it’s anything but cheerful, I highly recommend reading Revolutionary Road for it’s unrelenting truth and comment on self-realization and the necessity for openness in marriage. And it’s high quality aside, I recommend it for anyone who wants a contemporaneous look at life in the Fifties and of how things could go terribly wrong, even in an age wherein things generally look bright and innocent.
To hear me review this book on Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation radio show, check out his website at CocktailNation.net.