When Richard Yates died in 1992, all of his novels were out of print, including his first novel, Revolutionary Road, published in 1961 and a finalist for the National Book Award.
One of the most brilliant and resonant things about Revolutionary Road is its title. It is, like the novel, simple and straightforward, and yet deeply ironic and layered. It is the name of the street in the suburbs where Frank and April Wheeler live. It is the path they choose to take. And it is the battle they will inevitably lose.
After reading Revolutionary Road and A Special Providence, his second novel, published in 1965, I still don’t know whether I like or actively dislike Yates’ stories.
For one thing, it’s hard to love his characters. Frank and April Wheeler are an aimless couple leading their rather pointless lives in an atmosphere of petty bickering and disappointment with each other and with themselves. And then there are Alice and Robert Prentice, mother and son in A Special Providence, who can’t seem to relate to each other or to anyone else.
This, of course, is the point Yates is making: no one relates to anyone. We are all alone. April Wheeler understands this when she reflects, “… if you wanted to do something absolutely honest, something true, it always turned out to be a thing that had to be done alone.”
E. M. Forster says, “Only connect,” but nobody has that capability in Yates’ stories. They bump up against each other, often explosively, but there is no connection. Like 18-year-old Robert Prentice, experiencing his first taste of battle in the closing days of World War II, there is an endless round of skirmishing with no driving force and no discernible outcome.
Yates creates unsympathetic characters for whom we feel a reluctant empathy as we count the ways in which we have known personal failure. The central characters eventually move offstage, swept away like detritus by circumstances they cannot or choose not to control. We are losers on the road of life, Yates seems to be saying, whether we choose a different path – or fall back on the smooth well-trodden road.
The film of Revolutionary Road is amazingly close to the novel as written – more credit to Yates, who wrote a couple of screenplays himself and is renowned for his dialogue. There were a few nods to Hollywood, including a more passionate relationship between Frank and April than I felt in the book. The movie leaves us with hope – and I don’t think that was Yates’ intent.
I didn’t realize what a hopeful person I was until I read Revolutionary Road.