Recycled Reads – Revolutionary Road

I live less than a block from my neighborhood Goodwill in Los Feliz, the same one I’ve donated used books to for years. Recently, for the first time, I decided to browse the selection of books there, and found a treasure trove of authors and titles that had been jettisoned from book shelves. Many of the offerings had been popular in past decades,  and I became interested in whether some of these books withstood the test of time.

For my first Recycled Read, I’d like to review Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I had high expectations from the blurbs by Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams on the back cover. Revolutionary Road was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1962, and Richard Yates has been attributed to be an influence on writers such as Raymond Carver and Andres Dubus.

So how did Revolutionary Road hold up nearly 50 years after first being published? For me, it was a mixed bag. It was a novel that did not seem to know itself. The doomed relationship of a dysfunctional couple that relocates to the suburbs is undercut by the author’s insistence to veer away from its most powerful scenes. Yates alternated between the close third-person perspective of his main protagonists Frank and April Wheeler to a confusing mix of minor characters. The title Revolutionary Road also seems to suggest it is a novel of place, but it barely scratches the surface of the dynamics within its Connecticut suburban neighborhood.

The novel is at its best in the tense, active and sometimes volatile scenes starring Frank and April. At their core, they are two people who do not seem to know themselves or each other, lonelier in each other’s company than they would be otherwise as they try to fit themselves into some idyllic world that does not exist. WW2 hovers  in Frank’s oft-repeated war stories, but his defining characteristic is fear in himself, his family and his vision of how to be a man. April’s only joy is in acting for the local neighborhood theater company, but she slowly comes to realize that she has been acting every day for years, and poorly at that. Both Frank and April are burdened by the illusion that they are special, different from their neighbors as they plan an exodus to Europe so that Frank can find himself.

The author intrudes, however, with an additional layer of commentary, alternating between sometimes very short scenes with minor characters, an opening salvo in third person plural, and an ending with a minor character turning off his hearing aid to close the curtains. There is also a heavy-handed catalyst in the form of a man who has been deemed crazy, and asks the questions the couple is afraid to ask each other.

The plot veers between the domestic and business worlds of wife and husband with marital affairs, poor decisions, and a remarkable lack of focus on the couple’s two kids. Without a dramatic engine propelling us forward, we are unprepared for April’s unwanted pregnancy and the decisions that drive the novel to its tragic conclusion, told in many voices.

Perhaps it is the author’s intent to keep the main characters at arm’s distance and there may well be others who feel differently about this book, and its place in the literary cannon (on more than one best 100 book list). Regardless of how the story was told, Yates was one of the first to focus the novel on the everyday plight of suburban families, and this subject matter has since spurred many great stories and books.

Feel free to agree, disagree, or to add to the conversation.

Martin Ott

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