To mark the cinematic release of Revolutionary Road, Professor Christopher Bigsby profiles author Richard Yates and his 1961 novel on which the film is based:
There are some writers who, whatever their initial reputation, drift from the public consciousness, the flame kept alive by readers and fellow writers who feel honour bound to introduce friends into what can quickly risk becoming a priesthood of the initiates. Richard Yates was one such. His first book, Revolutionary Road, appeared in 1961 and was nominated for the National Book Award. Later in the 60s, recommended by William Styron, he became speech writer to Robert Kennedy, a distraction, he realised, and a disillusionment. In a last novel, never finished, he would lament the dishonesty of public life even as, at the time, he had been dismayed at the loss of a man who he had felt could change America.
There were other books, including the impressive The Easter Parade (1976), but print runs were usually abbreviated. Magazines showed little interest in his short stories. His work went out of print, was resurrected, faded away. He suffered from depression, smoked, and fuelled himself with more alcohol than was good for him. When he died, in 1992, he was reduced to carrying a portable oxygen tank because of lungs ruined by TB and emphysema. There were writers for whom such a history would have been a principle recommendation, providing a satisfying myth in which life was traded for art. It never quite worked that way for Yates. By the time of his death he was largely forgotten. But not by everyone. Kurt Vonnegut was an admirer while Richard Ford declared a debt to him. In this country David Hare waved a banner. Nor were they alone. Today, he is back in print, and now Sam Mendes has made a film version of that first, great novel. Good writers never really fade away. They just wait for people to come to their senses.
New readers should start where his first readers started, with Revolutionary Road, though prepare to have the air sucked out of your own lungs because the world he describes there – suburban America as the 1950s edged into the 1960s – is hermetic. Yates acknowledged it to be his best book, itself, of course, tinder for a depressive. He lost out to Walker Percy who won The National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but in the end it is not prizes that are the mark of a book, though I suspect he would have liked one.
Revolutionary Road is set in suburban New England, in one of those modern developments which never quite assure those who live there that they have arrived at whatever destination they imagined themselves to aspire to. The central characters are the Wheelers, moving grudgingly into their thirties, aware at some level that they have failed while unable to identify the precise nature of that failure. Frank thinks of himself as a ‘kind of Jean-Paul Sartre sort of man,’ as well he might as beneath him is an existential void. He has enough awareness to be conscious of inadequacy but not enough to understand his responsibility for it. His wife sees herself as a support operation until, suddenly, she does not and their world begins its slow collapse.
There are hints of Sinclair Lewis here, as there is of the Ernest Hemingway of the short stories (Yates uses the word ‘brilliantly’ as only Hemingway had done to convey a sense of an inappropriate emotional response). These, though, are no more than nods of acknowledgement. The world Yates creates is his own. He draws a portrait of a society which lacks transcendence, lacks even an awareness of what that might be. His are characters who perform their lives but they are no better at doing so than April Wheeler is when she appears in the amateur dramatics which open the book.
Both of them hazard an affair, though without passion which is altogether too positive a feeling. They are adrift. They have children but make no real connection with them, shipping them off to acquaintances so that they can indulge themselves in the rows which are a substitute for contact. A neighbour’s adult schizophrenic son is one of the only characters to names things as they are, to ignore the curious decorum which passes for sociability, and he is incarcerated for his pains.
They are aware that they are trapped, that the grace of their bodies is beginning to fade, that their ambitions have been compromised and their visions dulled. They are not so much living their lives as waiting them out until April takes it into her mind to kill her child in the womb, though whether that is a gesture towards freedom of a sorts or some final act of capitulation is not clear, especially, it seems, to her.
The book ends as a character turns off his hearing aid, choosing silence over the vapid chatter which passes for communication in Revolutionary Road. And if the rest is not silence then it is no more than a suspiration, a prolonged sigh over an America which seems to have lost any sense of purpose or direction. As Yates himself explained, the title was intended to invoke the revolutionary spirit of 1776, the best, brave spirit of change and possibility now come to a dead end in 50s America.
Well, that is nearly half a century ago. So does Yates’s novel offer anything more than a footnote to an American complacency and conformity that has surely long since disappeared? You will detect a rhetorical question when you read one. Nearly a decade deep into the 21st century, with capitalism in freefall and no one confidently stepping forward to explain what has gone wrong or how we might proceed, that same lack of direction, that same absence of transcendence, that same sense of an obdurate failure mocks us all. Yates was something more than a poèt maudit. He was a moral surgeon dissecting the world we still inhabit.
And here's the trailer: