American beauty (Circa 1955)
New York Times Book Review; New York; Apr 9, 2000
As "Revolutionary Road" approaches its 40th year in print, it
seems odd to imagine readers opening it for the first time. So primary
and forceful have been this novel's appeal and effects pon two generations
of us that to not already know Richard Yates's great book seems incongruous,
and handing it over cold feels clumsy; a bit like introducing a sage old
friend to a precocious new friend: we almost would rather not, for all
the crucial things that cannot be thought and said again. And yet of course
we must, since great books, like great friends, are to be shared.
Suffice it to say that among readers of American fiction since the beginning
of the 1960's, "Revolutionary Road," published to acclaim in
1961, has become a kind of cultish standard. And this is especially true
among writers, who have kept its reputation burnished by praising it,
teaching it, sometimes unwittingly emulating its apparent effortlessness,
its complete accessibility, its luminous particularity, its deep seriousness
toward us human beings - about whom it conjures shocking insights and
appraisals. We marvel at its consummate writerliness, its almost simple
durability as a purely made thing of words that defeats all attempts at
classification. Realism, naturalism, social satire the standard critical
bracketry - all go begging before this splendid book. "Revolutionary
Road" is simply "Revolutionary Road," and to invoke it
enacts a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.
Richard Yates was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1926, and died in 1992 in
the Veterans Administration Hospital in Birmingham, Ala. He did not attend
college after high school; served in the Army during World War II; was
twice divorced and was the father of three daughters. For a time after
the war he worked as a publicity writer for the Remington Rand Corporation,
and for a brief period in the late 60's served as a speechwriter for Senator
Robert Kennedy. But for the most part Yates was solely a writer, only
occasionally supplementing his income by teaching and by writing for the
movies. During his writing life he wrote seven novels (including "Revolutionary
Road") and two books of short stories, many of which have been anthologized
and are richly admired by readers as models of the form.
Yates - who was both famously decorous and famously plain-spoken - once
remarked to an interviewer that he felt he had written too little in his
life, and that his was the misfortune to have written his best book first.
And although over his 30 years of public life as a writer Yates's reputation
rose, then fell, then rose again, ultimately distinguishing him as that
ambiguous thing, a "writer's writer," one who does not make
it (as did his contemporaries Cheever, Updike, Walker Percy) into the
permanent, big-money main arena of American literary fashion, it is also
true that nothing he wrote came near the achievement and acclaim of "Revolutionary
Road," which "lost" the 1961 National Book Award to Walker
Percy's novel "The Moviegoer."
The story line of "Revolutionary Road" can be summarized succinctly:
In the spring and summer of 1955, in the western Connecticut bedroom community
of Revolutionary Hill Estates, the lives of the young Wheeler family April,
Frank and two minor children - become essentially and violently unglued,
never ever to be as they were.
To a casual passer-by, the Wheelers' lives might not seem so different
from their neighbors' - the pleasures and anxieties being the available,
expectable ones: participation in the community theater group, tipsy,
twilight dinners with other like-minded homeowners, easy shots to and
from the commuter line, the comfort of being indistinguishably in the
culture while staying solidly in command of life's fundamental choices;
and - less cheerily - a wan inability to keep the frustrations of youth's
passage precisely at bay, the fatigue of the workplace grind, the puzzlement
of keeping life interesting and vigorous while maintaining the nuclear
But into the Wheelers' lives comes much that is not good, even if no single
visitation seems exceptional enough to render the whole unsurvivable.
Frank and April regrettably harbor little affection for each other. Each
dislikes the suburbs and talks about it too much. The children provide
the standard trials. Frank's work in the city is, he admits, "the
dullest job you can possibly imagine." And April, with too little
to do, embarrassingly and publicly fails as a little-theater actress.
On top of it all the Wheelers drink too much, are bored stiff by their
neighbors, feel vaguely fearful of being cliches, and as a consequence
view their future as indistinct but unpromising.
Still, April Wheeler proves resourceful and devises a romantic solution
to her and Frank's growing malaise. They will sell their house and move
to Paris. There Frank can "find" himself; she can join the secretarial
pool at NATO, and the kids can learn French. After that, the future can
take care of itself on the cheap, while they gain confidence that life
is not being played out in cloying ways.
Only Frank Wheeler has already begun to supplement his unhappy married
life by skulking into a tacky office affair with the uncharitably named
Maureen Grube. In every way but the stated, he fears the change that April's
Paris plans will bring. And for this reason, and contrary to his bitter
expressions about his nothing job, Frank allows himself to be coaxed into
the "better" job of writing motivational talks for the new sales
arm of his company, Knox Business Machines, which is extending its old-fashioned
product lines for the new 50's computer age.
PLANS, however, proceed toward selling the house. Frank's office liaison
begins, stops, then flares again. His reluctance about moving grows. The
children not surprisingly become confused. Frank and April fall into arguments,
endure loud, unwanted divulgences, suffer accusations and retractions,
slaps to the face, fleeings, returnings, outrages, until their moving
plans are abandoned, and with that decision the Wheelers' anchorage to
some good life they'd chosen gradually, then swiftly, then suddenly, violently,
tragically disappears. All of it seemingly gone in one balmy summer that
might have ended well for some family other than the Wheelers.
"The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate
a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming
shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland
of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly
through a dappling of green and yellow leaves. . . . A man running down
these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place. Except for
the whisk of his shoes on the asphalt and the rush of his own breath,
it was so quiet that he could hear the sounds of television in the dozing
rooms behind the leaves - a blurred comedian's shout followed by dim,
spastic waves of laughter and applause, and then the striking-up of a
In 1961, "Revolutionary Road" must have seemed an especially
corrosive indictment of the postwar suburban "solution," and
of the hopeful souls who followed its call out of the city in search of
some acceptable balance between rough rural essentials and urban opportunity
and buzz. Frank Wheeler, the novel's principal character, is 29, already
a combat veteran and a Columbia graduate and outwardly a man on the way
up. Yet Yates depicts him sarcastically as a compromised, self-important
"suit" with "the kind of unemphatic good looks that an
advertising photographer might use to portray the discerning consumer
of well-made but inexpensive merchandise." In the novel's close notice
Frank is a deluded, dissipated bore who imagines himself "as an intense,
nicotinestained Jean-Paul-Sartre sort of man," but is merely an adulterer
spicing his talk with literary references while following work so stultifying
and meaningless that he even laughs at himself.
April Wheeler is also a youthful 29, though unappreciated by her husband,
who sees her as a "graceless, suffering creature whose existence
he tried every day of his life to deny." Yates imagines April slightly
more charitably - as a slightly dazed, slightly spoiled, actress wannabe
possessing no particular good will for her spouse, who still struggles
to set a go-nowhere life onto new rails that will lead her family (or
more particularly lead her) to Paris and a main chance at freedom. Yet
April finally succumbs to a lack of vigor and becomes complicitous in
being lied to, then tricked and demoralized, then driven crazy, and finally
done in by circumstances she simply lacks the moral vigor to control.
Over the nearly four decades since the publication of "Revolutionary
Road," commentators have almost always characterized Yates's novel
as "bleak" and his vision of Americans and American life in
the suburbs as, in the words of Joyce Carol Oates, people adrift in "a
sad, gray, deathly world." Yates himself, never one to pull a punch,
admitted to an interviewer in 1974 that he "meant the title to suggest
that the revolutionary road of 1776 . . . our best and bravest revolutionary
spirit had come to something very much like a dead end in the 50's."
And indeed, a citizenry's urge to break away and form a community based
on clear ideas of who the citizens are, what they need and what they're
up against is very much the model for correct deportment in Yates's view.
Though in "Revolutionary Road" this is precisely the ideal that
the suburbs - monotonous, anesthetized buffer zones between the two more
vital life experiences of the country and the city - manage to trivialize
and contaminate. Suburbanites themselves seem but hungry, aimless foragers
in pursuit of not a better life but only an easier, less responsible one.
None of the characters glimpsed in "Revolutionary Road" have
much of a clue about who it is they are. They can't, in fact,. admit it
fast or often enough. All are walking paths laid out by forces and authorities
other than their own personal senses of right and wrong: Convention. Habit.
Disengagement. Mammon. Escape. "He couldn't even tell whether he
was angry or contrite, whether it was forgiveness he wanted or the power
to forgive," Yates's narrator remarks caustically about Frank Wheeler.
And as her life is swept along toward the novel's withering climax, April
Wheeler, in despair nearly unto death, peers at her neighbor, the feckless
Shep Campbell, there in the gloom of a back seat where they've fallen
upon each other in a drunken moment of befuddlement and sexual dismay:
"Honestly," April says, stating no more than what's obvious.
"It's just that I don't know who you are. . . . And even if I did
. . . I'm afraid it wouldn't help, because you see I don't know who I
No one (except perhaps the children) really comes out looking very good
in "Revolutionary Road." Even Yates's supporting cast of neighbors,
venal business types, blustery bosses, nosy realtors and nut-house residents
all seem deluded and discredited, each in her or his own way, disabled
as doers of right, or incapable of the sort of affiliations that could
weave a fabric of communal spirit strong enough to hold the weak should
they falter, or console the despairing when they sound a plea.
Back in 1984, in a not particularly admiring essay about Yates's novels,
Anatole Broyard of The New York Times noticed and then complained about
what still seems to me a crucial fact about "Revolutionary Road"
- a feature with which I myself have no complaint. "The main question
in Mr. Yates's work," Broyard wrote, "is whether we are being
asked to see around, or beyond, the characters to some kind of symbolism
- or to take them literally. Are we supposed to forgive their shortcomings
and their failures as God does, or are they being offered up as intrinsically
interesting without extenuation? Is his perspective metaphysical or entomological?"
BROYARD'S is, indeed, an issue of particular importance for appreciating
"Revolutionary Road." On the one hand Yates's consummate talent
for devising and developing the particulars of life-as-lived, his willingness
to put his imagination at the service of taking life seriously, his ability
to invent plausible human emotion before we can experience it, and then
put it to word - all this would speak for a perspective of man-seen-as-literal-creature.
And yet, there is so much in this novel that's sarcastic, comical, mischievous,
hyperbolic, as to argue not for the literal but the emblematic Broyard's
"metaphysical." All these extraliteral names: Mrs. Givings the
ungiving realtor; Shep the bird-dogging neighbor; the improbable Oat Fields,
Frank's father's Dickensian boss; the implicitly grubby Ms. Grube; even
the reeling Wheelers themselves, spinning out of kilter and down the road
to disaster. Plus all the archly amplified description that eventually
brings everyone into the flattening light of derision and satire, as with
the pathetic Mr. and Mrs. Livings, on the day they visit their son in
the "home" where he's "resting" up for the travail
that will be the poor rest of his life:
"In the outer waiting room of Ward Two A, after they had pressed
the bell marked RING FOR ATTENDANT, Mr. and Mrs. Livings shyly joined
a group of other visitors who were inspecting an exhibition of patients'
artwork. The pictures included a faithfully rendered likeness of Donald
Duck, in crayon, and an elaborate purple-andbrown crucifixion scene in
which the sun, or moon, was done in the same crimson paint as the drops
of blood that fell at precisely measured intervals from the wound in the
Moreover, just how bad can it literally be out there in the burbs where
Frank Wheeler can dopily muse, "Economic circumstances might force
you to live in this environment, but the important thing was to keep from
being contaminoted" - and yet where almost nobody's character shows
capacity to change, but only to suffer? How unhappy and morally compromised
can the Wheelers make each other and stay credible as fellow humans? "He
could be grateful in a sense that he had no particular area of interest,"
the narrator notes, airily sizing up Frank's life: "In avoiding specific
goals he had avoided specific limitations. For the time being the world,
life itself, could be his chosen field."
In Broyard's creaky terms, "Revolutionary Road" seems to want
it both ways - the "entomological" and the metaphysical; the
literal and the symbolic. Broyard felt that in choosing both modes the
novel did neither very well. But for my money, by allowing at least two
strategies of representing reality to share time, Yates brought to life
all the more remarkable a novel; brought us - through art - near enough
to life's palpable details that we can recognize our own lives, yet preserved
for us a distance from which we can exercise moral judgment and be relieved
that the Wheelers aren't us.
To me, at 56, 1955 doesn't seem so far away now. And opened fresh today,
"Revolutionary Road " manages to testify both to how much in
American culture has shifted since the 50's, and how much from that odd
time remains lively in our moral imaginations. Everyone in "Revolutionary
Road" drinks way too much, and everyone smokes. Pregnant women do
both with utter alacrity. Business lunches feature four martinis, and
afternoons are sacrificed to trysts with your secretary, followed the
next morning by the gentleman slinking in, making nice, but never calling
again. Frank Wheeler smacks April around when he gets a little loaded,
and April by and large lets it happen. Wives mostly stay near to home,
don't earn a paycheck, do not attend consciousnessraising seminars. Business
downtown is still Bartlebyesque with offices in big open rooms, "ablaze
with fluorescent ceiling lights, that had been divided into a maze of
aisles and cubicles by shoulder-high partitions." There are as yet
no cell phones, no faxes, no call waiting, and salaries are insufficient
for ski weekends in Sugarbush. There is no Sugarbush, no 10-K races, no
AND yet "Revolutionary Road" stands at the beginning of the
new computer age, and chronicles its early fascination with empty communication,
which has led us to self-absorption, narcissism, megalomania and unwanted
e-mail. "It's a completely new kind of job, and we're going to have
to develop a completely new kind of talent to do it," brays the bulbous
Bart Pollock to the feckless and fearful Frank after knocking back one
more big gin. Frank Wheeler is that new man, the heir apparent, "selling
the electronic computer to the American businessman," and thus heralding
"a whole new concept in business control."
And beyond dubious business ethics, the novel's denouement hangs upon
the rather up-todate dilemma of whether April Wheeler can raise her consciousness
enough to nervily defy her husband, break ranks and terminate a pregnancy
she fears will ruin her life. Although contemporary readers will shake
their heads at the disastrous course April chooses for assuring her future,
no one can argue the novel's clear-sightedness and perfect pitch in depicting
a transition in modern moral life and in scrupulously calibrating the
fearsome human cost attendant to great societal change.
Over the years, few even approving com mentators have remarked on what
a funny book "Revolutionary Road" is, its black-onblack grimness
and serious moral mien perhaps overmatching most critics' comic sensitivity
about an era we normally don't think of as chock-full of laughs. And certainly
no one comes to the conclusion of "Revolutionary Road" in a
state of rollicking high spirits. But comic are unquestionably this novel's
means, start to almost finish: arch exaggeration of the smallest human
pomposity and social ritual; fatal portraits of marriages gone absurdly
bust; surgically accurate cameos of lesser players and unusually cruel
assessments of ignorance posing as innocence. Here are the ill-starred
Wheelers once again with their "friends" the clueless Campbells,
convening another cozy neighborhood intime:
" `Hi! They called to another.
" `Hi! . . . `Hi!' . . .'
"This one glad syllable, borne up through the gathering twilight
and redoubling back from the Wheelers' kitchen door, was the traditional
herald of an evening's entertainment. Then came the handshakings, the
stately puckered kissings, the sighs of amiable exhaustion `Ah-h-h'; '
Who-o-o' - suggesting that miles of hot sand had been traveled for the
finding of this oasis or that living breath itself had been held, painfully,
against the promise of this release. In the living room, having sipped
and grimaced at the first frosty brimming of their drinks, they pulled
themselves together for a moment of mutual admiration; then they sank
into various postures of controlled collapse."
There are moments in reading "Revolutionary Road" when I'm made
to wonder exactly which human qualities its author would finally sponsor
as both virtuous and practicable. What would prove adequate to hold the
fabric together long enough to get through life in one acceptable piece?
Clearly something more's required than the standard livelihood protocols
- the train, the office, advancement, collegiality - since all lead to
other postures of controlled collapse. Marriage qua marriage is also plainly
not adequate. Likewise parenting. Paris - the old, fragrant dream of freedom
- seems out of reach.
Clearly some more straitened form of life is required, one in which what
we say strictly corresponds to what we mean. We also might not care to
ask very much of others. And there might not be that much fun around.
Indeed, Yates's dark humor seems calculated less to please us than, as
with any satire, to soften us up for the sterner truths.
And there's no escaping stern truth here. But goodness knows there's so
much along the way to like and admire that, stern truths or no, you're
sorry when it's over - sorry in more ways than one. Mostly "Revolutionary
Road" is just so smart and keen and shockingly inventive about everything
it turns its imagination to: about being young and blissfully rudderless
in New York City before the responsibilities of marriage and family cloud
the sky; about entertaining the awful neighbors; about long, long business
lunches; about being 30 and feeling middle-aged; about fearing change
when you know change is likely to save you; even about the pink light
seen through a poor man's earlobe, palely summing up all of humanity's
frailty and failure:
"Isn't there any cake?" inquires the recumbent Howard Givings
of his dutiful realtor wife. "I thought we still had some of the
" ' Well yes, dear, but you see I thought we'd just have the plain
tea today because we'll be having such an early dinner.' She explained
all over again about her engagement with the Wheelers, only dimly aware
of having told him before, and he nodded, only dimly aware of what she
was saying. As she talked she stared in absent-minded fascination at the
way the dying sun shone crimson through her husband's earlobe and made
his dandruff into flakes of fire, but her thoughts were hurrying ahead
to the evening."
If we finally see the Wheelers and their set as strange and remote "50's
types" with their smoky Paris reveries, their gooney business pontifications,
no-fuss sexual dalliances, their memories of youth and a just war fast
receding, we should still, I would plead, let this novel have its way
with us. Types always come to us from some fast truth somewhere. And by
envisioning the change from one small, not-so-long-ago era to another
- to our very own era, in fact - "Revolutionary Road" looks
straight at us with a knowing and admonitory eye, and invites us to pay
attention, have a care, take heed, live life as if it mattered what we
do, inasmuch as to do less risks it all.
Richard Ford is a novelist and short-story writer. This essay has been
adapted from his introduction to a new edition of "Revolutionary
Road," being published later this month by Vintage.
Copyright New York Times Company Apr 9, 2000