Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 05 Feb 2019

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates

Revolutionary Road, published in 1961, was Yates’ first novel and for the best part of forty years it all but vanished from critical and public attention. Interest in the book and the author began to pick up after his rather premature death at the age of 66 in 1992 but it’s breakthrough moment coincided with the millennium – and I would suggest that the timing here was everything.

Millennial times are always associated with an increase in social anxiety and Yates was, in many ways, the ideal author for that moment. At the beginning of the 1960s when so many Western societies were going through their own existential debates, Yates seemed to fit perfectly into a school of writing that got stuck with an ‘Age of Anxiety’ label. But rather than attracting public acclaim (all of his books sold poorly) he became an example of that breed of author who is a critical success but a commercial failure. By the time of his death all of his books were out of print and none of the hardbacks had sold significant numbers. Despite that other authors queued-up to lavish praise on his work:

 “writers as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Yates's brand of realism was a direct influence on writers such as Andre Dubus, Raymond Carver and Richard Ford.”  (Wikipedia)

So at the turn of the millennium, with all its anxieties, Yates was ripe for rediscovery and a new biography, a film of Revolutionary Road and reprints of his novels and short stories followed. And, in my view, it’s a damned good thing they did because Revolutionary Road is an absolute knock-out.

The book is the portrait of a marriage on the rocks and we are able to watch as the poison slowly seeps through the relationship to its tragic conclusion. But this isn’t just a domestic tragedy, it’s a surgical dissection of late 1950s American suburbia and the intellectually stifling and emotionally constricting effect of the ‘American dream’.

The book isn’t about action or convoluted plot – in that sense nothing too much happens – but inside the house on Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler, a couple in their early thirties with their young children are slowly but surely emotionally killing each other. To the outside world – their friends, neighbours and work colleagues – Frank and April are a glittering couple. She is a statuesque beauty and he is handsome and witty but barely beneath the surface they are stale and disappointed by the way their ‘promise’ has evaporated. Essentially they are bored with themselves as much as with the suburban life they have trapped themselves in and they long for escape. The weight of the trap that keeps them pinned to their circumscribed lives makes them turn on each other with a cold and unsentimental viciousness that the reader knows from the beginning can only end tragically.

In a final attempt to find meaning in their lives they create a plan to leave for Europe – a plan we know (and we think they also know) will never come to fruition. When April gets unexpectedly pregnant again they have to confront the question of whether they have the child and lose the dream, or, abort the child. Although they deny it to each other, each is secretly happy to have an excuse to do nothing – they are no longer to blame for their entropy, fate has taken a hand.

But free from having to play act their enthusiasm for the European plan it becomes apparent that their emotional truce collapses and Frank admits an affair with an office colleague. Unbalanced by the life sentence she faces, April decides to abort her child, well after the safe date for such a procedure and she bleeds to death. In truth, she has committed suicide.

John Mullen writing in The Guardian provides this insightful overview of the book’s conclusion:

“At the book's end, Frank's habit of constructing imaginary dialogue is turned to truly painful use. April has bled to death after attempting to induce a miscarriage. Frank returns home from the hospital to find the evidence of her self-destructive desperation and to imagine her speaking. "Two heavy towels, soaked crimson, lay lumped in the tub, close to the drain. 'I thought that would be the simplest way to handle it,' he could hear her saying." As he starts cleaning up, her domestic chat rings in his head. "Try a damp sponge and a little dry detergent, darling - it's there in the cabinet under the sink."

Only afterwards does he find that "April's voice no longer spoke to him". "He tried for hours to recapture it, whispering words for it to say," but uselessly. His punishment for imagining her talk all too easily is that finally he cannot imagine it at all.”

It’s impossible to understand why some books have a glorious, high profile existence and others, like Revolutionary Road, slide off into the shadows and find themselves neglected. We should be grateful that this one was rediscovered, brushed down and brought back into the light because I think it’s a major piece of work and a necessary read for anyone who wants to understand the zeitgeist that was ultimately responsible for creating the culture of the 1960s.


Terry Potter

February 2019