The Richard Yates back-story has passed into popular literary legend: the acclaimed author who never sold more than 12,000 copies per hardback, and whose works were largely out of print before being rediscovered posthumously and enjoying a revival. For a Yates novice such as myself this might seem a little too good to be true but I felt duty bound to read his first novel 'Revolutionary Road' before its characters were forever synonymous with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (the main players in a recent Sam Mendes adaptation).
Revolutionary Road is a brutal story about marital dysfunction in America during the 1950s, revolving around Frank and April Wheeler's attempts to extricate themselves from the stifling banality of suburban life and begin again in Europe. Unabashedly cynical, Yates gets to the heart of his characters' insecurities and pretensions with unfussy clarity. The author wastes no time in exposing Frank and April for their limitations and displays little sympathy for their (self-destructive) aspirations. This might have seemed too savage had Yates been a lesser writer, and not able to weigh his words with extraordinary perception. Economical in its insights, I found reading 'Revolutionary Road' refreshing following Richard Ford's - himself apparently a Yates disciple - insight top-heavy `Independence Day', which spends so much longer labouring over its observations.
Frank's work on what is later described as "that awful stone path going half way down the front lawn and ending in a mud puddle" becomes a metaphor for the folly of suburban espousal. The Wheelers' marriage, like the garden path, "was turning into mindless, unrewarding work, the kind of work that makes you clumsy with fatigue and petulant with lack of progress", and was also halted prematurely in an ugly mess.
Despite the drama of the Wheelers' marriage breakdown taking place in an authorial third person, he takes occasional dips into their memories. It is in these private explorations of character that he is at his least cynical and most empathetic:
"the mists of an absorbing dream still floated ... of a dim and deeply tranquil time long ago. Both his parents had been there, and he'd heard his mother say, 'Oh, don't wake him, Earl; let him sleep'. He tried to remember more of it, and couldn't; but the tenderness of it brought him close to tears ...'
Revolutionary Road is particularly touching when it talks about both April and Frank's relationships with their fathers. The latter recalls a tender childhood moment with his:
" 'Open it!' That was one of his earliest memories: the challenge to loosen one big fist, and his frantic two-handed efforts, never succeeding, to uncoil a single finger from its massively quivering grip ... But it wasn't only their strength he envied, it was their sureness and sensitivity - when they held a thing, you could see how it felt- and the aura of mastery they imparted ..."
The power of hands, always intrinsic to the idea of male gravitas - so important to conservative 1950s America - has a double function in the novel, representing both conformity and masculinity. Frank describes his father's hands as somehow ontologically charged, that "when they held a thing, you could see how it felt," even though Frank has little respect for the choices his father - a company man - made in life. Despite Frank's misgivings about the mindless grind of the nine to five, he still compares his own grip - his masculinity - unfavourably to his father's, even on his death bed, remembering that "when they lay loose and still on the hospital sheet at last they still looked stronger and better than his son's". Indeed, when Frank is chastened by grief, his friend Shep notices with disgust "the light, dry press of his handshake, you began to see the life had gone out of him".
Frank is finally neutralised by tragedy in a way that the electric shock therapy fails to do to John Givings, the mentally unstable son of a neighbour. Frank and April initially see an affinity in Givings: "He's the first person who really seemed to know what we're talking about," says April, with Frank replying "I guess that means we're as crazy as he is". The twin notions of insanity and conformity were echoed in Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was published a year later. At first, John Givings seems to have good reasons to have gone mad, having been raised by a woman who represents everything the Wheelers despise about suburbia: the keeping up appearances, the nosiness, the false friendliness. Mrs Given's is described brilliantly early in the novel as a woman ...
"whose eyes expressed a religious belief in the importance of keeping busy. Even when she stood still was kinetic energy in the set of her shoulders and the hang of her loose, angrily buttoned-up clothes ...
'April! April! I just wanted to tell you that we loved the play!' Her strained, shouting face could have been the picture of woman in agony."
Although Mrs Givens borders on parody, she is pardoned by the author who softens his stance by showing her crying because "she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen; she cried because none of the girls liked her at school and none of the boys had liked her later", in another unsparing dip beneath the surface.
Mostly though, Revolutionary Road is about selfishness and ego. Take, for example, Frank's recognition of his wife's unhappier childhood, unsure 'whether he felt sorrow for the unhappiness of the story or envy because it was so much more dramatic a story than his own'. This selfishness is shared by the Wheelers' friend and neighbour Milly Campbell, who finally transforms Frank and April's misfortune into sensationalised gossip to impress new friends - to her husband's disgust. That the novel rings true doesn't detract from the fact that Revolutionary Road is a dispiriting read, and while not entirely lacking in compassion certainly brutal in its assessments.