Book Review of Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 1/23/08
I first became acquainted with Richard Yates after having read his Collected Short Stories, which was very good. Following up, I finally had a chance to read his most famous novel Revolutionary Road, which was also nominated for the National Book Award in 1961 and lost to Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer. And just as proof that prizes don’t matter in the long term, I say so what? While I can’t claim to have read The Moviegoer, Revolutionary Road is an excellent and realistic read about 1950s suburban America and the people who hate to live in it. One of my criticisms about contemporary fiction is that so few writers deal with the reality of everyday life—perhaps that is partly due to their isolation within academia, which tends to cause people to lose touch with the Common Working Man, or perhaps they are just not “adult” enough to deal with issues maturely and so that is why they resort to hyperbole and Political Correctness.
Revolutionary Road tells the story of April and Frank Wheeler, a married suburban couple with two kids. Basically, Frank hates his dull office job and April is a housewife who never made it as an actress. In an attempt to then spice up their lives as well as cultural awareness, they decide to move to France. Yet, amid their arguments and jealousies—they instead decide not to go, for April soon discovers she is pregnant.
What makes this novel so well written are the believable scenes coupled with the realistic dialogue. There are literally pages of exchanges between the couple and their friends that could have worked as a stage play, and it is my belief that Yates could have been a great playwright had he so desired. What makes Revolutionary Road work so well is that the scenes are so believable and not laced in melodrama, and nor does Yates go without humor or condescend to his audience. He merely lets the scenes play out and speak for themselves rather than trying to bathe the narrative with triteness and clichés. (The movie equivalent would be a bad score full of sappy music and a camera focusing in on some actor’s face as a means for the viewer to know what an important moment something is).
Here is an example when Frank and April get into a fight:
Then the fight went out of control. It quivered their arms and legs and wrenched their faces into shapes of hatred, it urged them harder and deeper into each other’s weakest points, showing them cunning ways around each other’s strongholds and quick chances to switch tactics, feint, and strike again.
Notice how the narrative trick Yates uses by referring to the fight as “it”. They did not quiver their arms and legs, but it did, almost as though he is referring to the “fight” as something outside themselves—something that is controlling them, wrenching their faces into “shapes of hatred” rather than mere “hatred” which would have been more cliché.
I also cannot stress the excellent dialogue throughout this book enough, for the intensity and realism of it reminded me of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night as well as The Iceman Cometh.
There is also another effective scene where Frank is confronting a woman he had an affair with, and with the intention of telling her he wants to break it off, he lets her know they need to “have a talk.” Actually, what Frank tells her is, “Look Maureen. I think we ought to have a talk.”
What immediately follows is this:
What happened after that, even while it was happening, was less like a reality than a dream. Only part of his consciousness was involved; the rest of him was a detached observer of the scene, embarrassed and helpless but relatively confident that he soon would wake up. The way her face clouded over when he began to talk, the way she sprang off his lap and fled for her dressing gown, which she clutched around her throat as tightly as a raincoat in a downpour she paced the carpet—“Well; in that case there really isn’t anything more to say, is there? There really wasn’t any point in your coming over today, was there?” –these seemed to exist as rankling memories even before they were events: so did the way he followed her around the room, abjectly twisting one hand in the other as he apologized and apologized.
I would just like readers to notice how this breaks every little clichéd rule writers are told in workshop 101 writing: show don’t tell. Here Yates is merely telling us what happened, rather than showing it because going through the dialogue isn’t necessary since we already know what the characters would say anyway. Yates fills Revolutionary Road with effective dialogue and yet he omits those parts that are not needed, such as in this scene, where the readers are just as much a “detached observer” as is he. That is the sign of great narrative ability, and Yates has that. Sometimes it is what a writer doesn’t say or reveal that can make a scene as powerful as it is.
April and Frank Wheeler are not likable characters, but they are believable and probably ones you’ve met before. Also, it is important to note that Revolutionary Road is not without humor (there is an old couple in the book and the husband always seems to turn his hearing aid off while his wife is speaking).
To anyone who might be thinking, “I don’t want to read another book about bored, unhappy suburbanites” should not stop from reading this novel. Yes, there is no doubt that novels today are filled with sappy characters complaining about how bored and miserable they are in suburbia. So I can readily admit the subject matter is tired and has been beaten to death, but that is only because those sorts of books are generally written more on a Lifetime Movie For Women level than Eugene O’Neill or Richard Yates level. And keep in mind, Richard Yates was writing in a time when it was easier to get great writing published, and for that I say to hell with the Book Award Winner and choose Revolutionary Road instead.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]
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