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With a Fingerhold on Reality
The New York Times, March 5, 1961
"I HAD this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people
somewhere," says the heroine of Richard Yates' interesting novel."
Sort of super-heroic people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and
kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I'd suddenly know that
I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I'd been meant to be one
of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake."
The fruition of this reverie for April Johnson is marriage with a human husk named Frank Wheeler, who is in his way far more deluded than his bride. April at least has a fixed illusion against which to measure reality; Frank has none. His personality is a loosely assembled hodgepodge of emotional stances, vaguely relevant to ancient memories of rejection by his father. As Mr. Yates delineates him, Wheeler is a kind of repellent Walter Mitty, a spiritual tourist whose quest to find himself is perpetually frustrated by the fact that there is no self to find. After seven years of marriage, he works half-heartedly at Knox Business Machines where he first enlisted as a lark ("actually it's sort of a stupid job"), commutes to Connecticut, sustains his ego with parlor oratory against conformity ("This whole country's rotten with sentimentality") and fails to relate satisfactorily to any other human being.
Given two protagonists with such a tenuous fingerhold on reality, the reader awaits the inevitable disaster, an expectation which the author of this solidly constructed first novel fulfills with both skill and sensitivity. The Wheelers' Revolutionary Road is in Connecticut, but "suburbia" is only the back-drop for a search for emotional sustenance that would be barren in any climate. Mr. Yates' pair feed on each other without nourishment, appearing to strangers as a couple of bright young marrieds ("The girl is absolutely ravishing, and I think the boy must do something very brilliant in town") but actually subsisting from one ego-busting brawl to another. After one especially traumatic encounter, April confects a plan that is an extension of her childhood illusions. They will leave the stultifying air of Connecticut and emigrate to Paris, where April will work as a secretary for some government agency and Frank will magically find his true vocation. ("Don't you see? You'll be doing what you should have been allowed to do seven years ago. You'll be finding yourself.") Sustained by this fantasy, Frank and April embark on a feverish idyll which dissolves into the catastrophe that has been intimated from the beginning of the novel.excellence of "Revolutionary Road" lies in the integrity with which its author depicts the Wheelers' disintegrating marriage. Eschewing the pitfalls of obvious caricature or patent moralizing, Mr. Yates chooses the more difficult path of allowing his characters to reveal themselves - which they do with an intensity that excites the reader's compassion as well as his interest.