Book #26: Revolutionary Road
Have you ever wanted to reach through the pages of a book, grab a character by the neck, and verbally abuse that character with your darts of intellectual and moral wisdom?
April Wheeler might be one of the most complicated, perplexing, frustrating characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. She’s selfish, egocentric, manipulative, lazy, cynical, hateful, and all sorts of other negative adjectives that I don’t have time to list. Her husband, Frank, is no saint. He has his share of issues—most notably, his inclination to cheat on his wife.
But Richard Yates writes these two characters in Revolutionary Road in such a way that I found myself totally pulled into the drama of Frank and April Wheeler.
The story is all about these two people—the Wheelers—as they cope with life as a young couple in the post-War 1950s, with two kids, living in the sameness of suburban America, and struggling to find meaning to their lives.
As I’ve mentioned on this blog several times, Revolutionary Road is a depressing story. Frank and April are selfish, extremely selfish, as parents. The kids in this story are afterthoughts who get caught up in the Wheeler family drama.
Frank hates his job. April hates Frank. Their two kids are scared of both of them. Depressed by their boring and self-proclaimed insignificant lives, they decide to move to Paris.
But life happens and the Wheelers are forced to put off the move to Europe, to “greener pastures” across the ocean. Bitterness, resentment, and anger sets in and their relationship slowly deteriorates. It’s a sad story.
Even so, Frank tries. He really tries. But he can’t get through to April. She says she doesn’t love him, and she never loved him. Frank is passionate, even in his mistakes. April is cold, unfeeling, indifferent. And therein lies the difference between the two.
In my preview of the book, Teresa commented that Revolutionary Road represented the beginning of the counter-culture movement of the 1960s. Frank and April are by no means hippies, but their ideals have a rebellious element to them.
Really, they talk the rebellious talk, but they don’t walk the rebellious walk. They despise the sameness and unoriginality of modern America, but they live in a nice house on a nice street with a nice, white picket fence. Their hypocrisy is only overshadowed by their selfishness.
As for the author, Richard Yates is another beautiful prose writer. He’s clean, crisp, imaginative. Here is one of my favorite passages from the book in which April Wheeler discusses with a “friend” how she feels like her life has passed her by:
“I still had this idea that there was a whole world of marvelous golden people somewhere, as far ahead of me as the seniors at Rye when I was in the sixth grade; people who knew everything instinctively, who made their lives work out the way they wanted without even trying, who never had to make the best of a bad job because it never occurred to them to do anything less than perfectly the first time. Sort of heroic super-people, all of them beautiful and witty and calm and kind, and I always imagined that when I did find them I’d suddenly know that I belonged among them, that I was one of them, that I’d been meant to be one of them all along, and everything in the meantime had been a mistake; and they’d know it too. I’d be like the ugly duckling among the swans.”
And one more passage that absolutely blew me away, and you’ll understand what I mean if you read the book.
“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.”
Revolutionary Road has beautiful visuals. But the images Yates creates are sad, much like the prose he writes. The Wheelers’ empty, hollow house. Their lonely, cookie-cutter street. Their pretentious conversations with insecure friends. Yates really makes you feel their loneliness and desperation.
The beauty of this novel is its focus. There’s not a wide overcomplicated storyline. There’s not a complex flowchart of characters to keep up with. Outside of Frank and April, the book has only a few other characters of note.
Yates is certainly making a statement about the consequences of poor decisions and the power of loneliness. But it’s all right there, right in front of you.
Honestly, the problem with this story is the fact that I’m reading it in 2011. 50 years ago, this was groundbreaking stuff. But, these days, it’s been done before. I’ve read about the couple who got married too young, made poor decisions, resented having kids, and resented each other. On the outside, they are happy and cheery. On the inside, they can’t stand to be around each other.
The novel mirrors The Great Gatsby in many ways–the never-ending, seemingly fruitless pursuit of The American Dream. Kurt Vonnegut even called the book “The Great Gatsby of my time.” That’s powerful praise. In discussing the theme of his work, Yates said:
“If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”
He’s such an optimist, that Richard Yates.
So if you can appreciate a depressing, somewhat morbid novel, then you’ll appreciate Revolutionary Road. Remember, if an author manages to draw emotions out of you as a reader, even negative emotions, he is simply doing an effective job as a writer and storyteller. And that’s exactly what Richard Yates does in this novel.
I don’t really enjoy reading sad, depressing material. But if, at the end of the novel, I’m left to ponder why I care so much about these characters and why I feel a sense of despair over their unhappiness, then I’ve got to tip my hat to the author and say, “Well done.”
Sure, depressing stories aren’t always fun to read. But, if you’re going to read one, make it Revolutionary Road.
The Opening Line: “The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over their footlights of an empty auditorium.”
The Meaning: The Wheelers live on Revolutionary Road in the Revolutionary Hill Estates in suburban Connecticut. From the outside, their house, their lives, their middle-class family seems fine and dandy. But, internally, they’re marriage is falling apart at the seams as their own selfish pursuits become their focus. Ultimately, the story is about suburban hypocrisy and the pursuit of the American Dream.
Highlights: Intense story with incredibly written characters. Very emotional novel with heart-wrenching scenes. Frank and April Wheeler’s desperation just oozes through Yates’ amazing prose.
Lowlights: Had I read this book 30 years ago, I would’ve loved it even more. It’s a story you’ve probably heard before, but Yates was one of the first to do it. At some point during this novel, you might feel like throwing the book (or Kindle, not suggested) across the room out of frustration…that’s because April Wheeler will drive you batty.
Memorable Line: “If you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”
Final Thoughts: If you’re up for a sad story, then Revolutionary Road is an excellent choice. The novel starts sad and only gets sadder. It follows the same formula as Blood Meridian, except that it’s not the violence that keeps increasing—it’s your depression as you read the book. Powerful, intense story. Don’t let the sadness turn you off. You don’t want to miss Richard Yates’s writing.