From the opening lines of Richard Yates masterpiece Revolutionary Road you know you are in the hands of a consummate story-teller. He lays out the initial issue the novel will probe right upfront: hopeful young marrieds who have settled for the “candy and ice cream colored cars” and houses of affluent Connecticut, circa 1955, strain against suburban boredom as the fires of their youthful hopes are extinguished, and they settle into the stagnation of their conventional choices. In Yates’ brilliant opening chapter all the signs point in one direction; nothing is wasted, out of place, or directionless. It perfectly embodies the theme of the story. At the same time he manages to introduce not only the doomed April Wheeler, bright hope of the evening, but her husband Frank: “the round-faced, intelligent looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience,” and “Mrs. Helen Givings, the real estate broker.”
Unlike DiCaprio’s (slightly) more sympathetic portrayal of him in the movie, Yates’ rendering of Frank is one of a man fatally self-absorbed, and he stews in his own cowardly choices. As a reader, I expected more sympathy for him (a la the movie) but Yates is merciless and unsparing in his depiction of Frank, the character from whose viewpoint most of the novel is told; at times – such as his coldly premeditated seduction of the office receptionist – showing Frank to be almost sociopathic in his calculating selfishness.
Beginning with a quick, audacious dismantling of the Knox Business Machines Corporation [where they both work], which made her laugh, he moved out confidently onto broader fields of damnation until he had laid the punctured myth of Free Enterprise at her feet; then, just at the point where any further talk of economics might have threatened to bore her, he swept her away into cloudy realms of philosophy and brought her lightly back to earth with a wise-crack.
He continues to chat her up, then:
Through it all, though, ran a bright and skillfully woven thread that was just for Maureen; a portrait of himself as decent but disillusioned young family man, sadly and bravely at war with his environment.
What impressed me most wasn’t this harsh honesty, but the unerring skill with which it is executed; a genius in depicting feeling, Yates hits all the right emotional notes with the urbane ease and confidence of a well-suited man whistling along with his collar button undone and his hands in his pockets.
In researching Yates, I found this essay in the Boston Review bemoaning his books being out of print in the late 1990’s, which made me very glad that someone had since rediscovered him for us, and made the movie, (as I might never have found him myself otherwise). It is awful to contemplate that a writer of this caliber could ever be lost to humanity due to the passage of time, and carelessness.
I was not bored for a second reading this novel, and from the first page read it with the sticky-fingered relish of an eight year old with stolen candy. I highly recommend it, especially to writers wishing to study subtle craft. My only caution is to those readers who are challenged by compound sentences, as Yates does not write down, and with regard to members of the Cult of the Short Sentence, will burn your idols right before your eyes.