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The New York Times, March 10, 1961
PROMINENTLY printed in large type across the front of the jacket of Richard Yates' brilliantly dismal first novel, "Revolutionary Road," is one of the most sublime specimens of unintentional humor and muddled thought in the recent history of book promotion. "Revolutionary Road," it says, "locates the new American tragedy squarely on the field of marriage." Since Mr. Yates' novel is not about the tragic state of America or about the tragedy of any particular Americans, this is nonsense. And why a new tragedy, anyway? It is about two psychopathic characters and their miserable haste to self-destruction. One of them is addicted to glib and pompous statements that sound as if they mean something but don't, statements just like the quotation above.
Richard Yates is a young journalist and teacher with a fine natural gift for fiction. He can create characters, tell a story, bring brutal wrangles to flaming life. His dialogue is expert and his prose is artfully controlled. There can be no question about the superior quality of his talents.
Far Gone Into Mental Illness
But, I feel certain, many readers may question the use to which he has put them. Fictional characters so far gone into mental illness that they are incapable of responsible decisions and unaware of the duty and necessity to make them have cluttered up hundreds of recent novels. They may be pitiful; but they aren't very interesting - not compared with troubled people trying their best to cope with their weaknesses and the problems.
"Revolutionary Road" is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, who seemed like such a nice young couple. They lived in one of those new little houses on Revolutionary Road not very from Stamford, Conn. Both were 30. Their daughter was 6, their son 4. April was a real beauty. But she had been abandoned and rejected by her parents, raised by aunts and forced (it says here) to retreat into a dream of a circle of golden, happy people which someday she would join as of natural right. Tense, quivering with hysterical emotion, April was always poised for flight.
Frank at first seems only an absolute fool. Then he seems like a dreamer whose vision of self-importance has paralyzed his will. But soon it is apparent that he is a helpless psychotic incapable of facing reality or responsibility. A bad parent, a wretched husband and a total loss at his job, which he affected to scorn, Frank lived for the joys of alcohol and talk. Frank could always repeat the currently fashionable clichés about conformity, sentimentality, intellectual sterility and "the hopeless emptiness of this country.From the lofty eminence he inhabited Frank looked down upon his suburban neighbors with contempt: "The point is it wouldn't be so bad if it weren't so typical. It isn't only the Donaldsons - it's the Cromers too, and the whaddyacallits, the Wingates, and a million others. It's all the idiots I ride with on the train every day. It's a disease. Nobody gets excited or believes in anything except their own comfortable little God damn mediocrity."
Hastening to a Disaster
As satire of a certain kind of modern cant, Frank's windy pretensions are pointed and even humorous. But Frank is not a recognizable type (he is much too far gone in his private fog of unreason) and "Revolutionary Road" is only satirical in passing. Frank refuses to work at his job in the sales promotion department of Knox Business Machines and succeeds in doing so little and still not being fired that incredulity raises its ugly head. He indulges in a love affair with a plain receptionist he doesn't even like. He just goes on talking and drinking and hastening the disaster which awaits him.
It was April who thought that everything wouldn't be so awful if they
could move to Paris - for good. She could work as a secretary in one of
the American agencies and Frank could read and think and invite his soul
and "find himself." So reality, never prominent in the Wheelers'
lives, disappeared completely.
Richard Yates has kept his story moving briskly. He has populated it with neatly portrayed minor characters, including a genuinely and certifiably insane patient recurrently on leave from a state hospital. And he has contrived a number of dramatic, pitiful and painfully dreadful scenes. No fair-minded reader could finish "Revolutionary Road" without admiration for Mr. Yates' impressive skill; but whether the mentally ill Wheelers deserve the five years of labor Mr. Yates has lavished upon them is another question.