by J. Albin Larson
Discussed in this article: Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates, [Little, Brown & Co, 1961]
It’s pretty much common knowledge that most breakups occur during football season.1 It breaks down to simple math. Between college and professional football games on TV for twelve hours apiece on Saturdays and Sundays, the Thursday night Game of the Week, Monday Night Football, managing your fantasy football roster(s), family Pick ‘Em leagues, office Suicide Pools, cable sports coverage, morning drive-time radio, newspaper and magazine articles, apps for your phone, betting through a shady, allegedly “Vegas” website that keeps asking you if you’re a U.S. citizen and then tells you that that’s a bad thing, the celebrations following a victory, the periods of self-pity and regret wondering why you spent five hours of your Saturday watching a loss, the three or four hours after that telling everyone you know that you’re done watching the [Fill-in-the-Blanks] from here on out because it’s such a waste of time, and the one time you and your buddies get together to play touch football and you’re sore for the rest of the season, the average American football fan spends somewhere between 75% and 95% of his/her waking hours2 between the months of August and February either watching, analyzing, playing, preparing to watch, or simply daydreaming about America’s most popular sport. When you also have a job, a place to clean every once in awhile, groceries to buy, and occasional meals to eat that do not occur while a football game is on TV, this amounts to a startling shortage of time allotted for devoting to your significant other. This, understandably, must be somewhat off-putting for them. One minute you’re taking bike rides along the river on a Saturday afternoon and enjoying the sunshine and then the first hint of a chill arrives and suddenly they’re standing there by themselves. And, unless your significant other is as embroiled in football as you are, there is bound to be friction. And in those times of friction, people start looking at each other for they really are, which is when you suddenly cease to be so dreamy and turn out to be the type of person who can sit on a couch for twelve hours two days in a row. A new character feature that, undoubtedly, makes you seem a lot less interesting (and probably sort of disgusting). And that’s why people break up.3 So, for this installment’s Peculiar Travel Suggestions, I thought we better discuss a pretty incredible breakup book.
Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road is just that. The story centers on Frank and April Wheeler, a married couple in their late twenties living in the suburbs of New York City with two young children. The novel, published in 1961, takes place in 1955. That era – as has been described in just about every piece of fiction or film set in the Fifties as a “simpler-but-maybe-not-so-simple-under-the-surface” time – is by now familiar to the modern reader. The homes were small, cookie-cutter boxes and the wives didn’t work and had dinner ready when their husbands arrived home, loosened their ties for the first time all day, and made themselves a Manhattan after commuting into the city by train for a hard day’s work.4 Although that milieu has been seen before, Yates’ take is especially fresh, considering the closeness in time his novel appeared – and was nominated for the National Book Award5 – with the events and social constructs of the era it depicts. When asked about the novel, Yates’ take was notably contemporary. In an interview, he once said, “I think I meant it more as an indictment of American life in the 1950s. Because during the Fifties there was a general lust for conformity all over this country, by no means only in the suburbs — a kind of blind, desperate clinging to safety and security at any price.” So much for the Good Old Days.
Now, it’s possible here that I’m giving too much credit to Yates (or to us) for being so “contemporary.” I think each generation’s perceptions of the ones preceding it are likely at least somewhat vacuous and ultimately a bit general. Still, the fact that we have a writer in this novel ripping the so-called Greatest Generation to shreds more or less while they were in their twenties is pretty interesting. On the other hand, a writer going ahead and claiming everyone around him is pretty much full of malarkey isn’t anything new. In any event, Revolutionary Road feels a lot more like a book someone would write about the Fifties today than someone writing about the Fifties in 1961.6 And that’s because Yates pulls absolutely no punches with how the characters feel about the time they live in, and, in the end, about their entire lives, including the focal point of the novel, their marriage.
That is, Frank and April Wheeler are disenfranchised. By everything. The novel begins with April starring in a local production of the play The Petrified Forest, which proves to be a disappointment for both the leading lady and the audience alike. April, a former amateur actress in NYC before her transformation into motherhood out in the suburbs, can’t even make it through the debut performance without gradually realizing what an embarrassment, what a waste, the whole production is. This comes across in her performance, as Yates describes,
She was working alone, and visibly weakening with every line. Before the end of the first act the audience could tell…that she’d lost her grip, and soon they were all embarrassed for her. She had begun to alternate between false theatrical gestures and a white-knuckled immobility; she was carrying her shoulders high and square, and despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.
After the show, Frank attempts to assuage her embarrassment by going through the motions of congratulating her and acting like putting on an amateur play was a fine way for a bunch of over-the-hill adults to spend their time, but she won’t have any of it. From there, a knock-down-drag-out fight ensues. The reader is so taken aback by the seeming hatred between the couple at the center of the story, that you begin to wonder how you’ll be able to stand 350 more pages of it. But then Yates does something you don’t see very much in stories like these. The couple suddenly gets happy.
Frank’s character, like April, is similarly troubled and hindered by the off-the-cuff choices he made in life thinking they were temporary, but wound up tethering him to conformity. Yates presents Frank, at least through the supporting characters’ eyes, as an exceedingly bright, totally affable young man with aspirations – he just never figured out for what. On a whim, he takes a mindless job at his father’s old company, mostly out of spite, so he can support his wife and young family. Duty called and Frank’s time for “finding himself” passed without it actually happening. But Frank is smart, and he has potential. He knows what he’s doing isn’t challenging and that he’s capable of so much more. He and April share this thought. In fact, that’s all they talk about with their neighbors – who are considerably less forward-thinking — which gives The Wheelers an air of superiority that allows them to believe they are somehow above the constraints of the mundane suburbs and the life that accompanies them.
At the start of the novel, Frank and April are going through the motions: their marriage is stagnant, their lives weighed down by the responsibilities foisted upon them by society or their own neuroses about what they feel they need to do. For example, after the performance of The Petrified Forest and their big opening fight, April sleeps on the couch and Frank feels the embarrassment that comes from having to explain to his daughter why things don’t look like they’re supposed to. (And God forbid if the neighbors should find out.) Yates’ interesting twist is that they find a way out of it. And that’s when they get happy. Or at least they try to.
It comes by April’s suggestion. She realizes that Frank’s not operating at his full capacity and she wants him to take the time to figure out how he can. She knows how she can provide this. She’ll go to work – and that way she can be useful again as well, although that’s not how she presents it to him – and he can stay at home and think about worldly things while the kids are at school. There will be no way to do this halfway. If they’re going to do it, they’re going to DO IT. And that’s why they need to sell their house on Revolutionary Road and move to France as well. At first Frank is reluctant, but because April massages his ego so thoroughly, he agrees to it. In fact, it’s perfect. He’ll leave his dead end job and their dead end house in the ‘burbs and he’ll really find his calling. It’s just that they have to figure out how they can afford it. And, even worse, they have to explain it to other people.
What follows is a fascinating journey of the couple seemingly coming back together, seeing what they saw in each other when they first met, and getting their hopes back up. The whole second act of the novel follows Frank and April convincing themselves and the rest of the people in their lives that doing something different is possible and that they are just the ones to show everyone how. Of course, this is setting the couple up for the fall, but it’s an astonishing literary trick to pull off. Yates’ narrative jumps from character to character’s take on the Wheelers’ plan and covers the gamut of emotions one can feel about such a subversive move. And more closely the novel follows Frank and his assessment of whether he can, as a man, really do something this different. In other words, can he put his money where his mouth is, even though society around him tells him it’s the selfish, irresponsible way to act? Throughout the novel, Yates masterfully plays the dichotomy between his characters’ duties and their direct and negative effects on the characters themselves. The responsible route ultimately leads to chaos and misery, while the road less traveled leads to fulfillment and happiness.
Of course, it’s not that simple.7 Things happen to The Wheelers that make it less plausible, tougher. Not impossible, but enough to really test their adherence to this great new life they have planned for themselves and their marriage itself. How the characters handle these changes is what makes this novel more than just a story about a marriage in the Good Old Days. It makes it a novel about fear, love, responsibility, hope, regret, failure, and ultimately adulthood itself. It makes it about everyone.
I just wish there was more football in it.
2 Although, I swear to God, I had a dream the other night that Tim Tebow was at my office BBQ and started a pickup football game. He was scrambling around outside the pocket, making errant throws, laying people out, thanking Jesus after touchdowns, the whole thing. For the record, I wasn’t playing. I was on the sideline commenting on what a prick Tim Tebow is. Nevertheless, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the sports media for Tim Tebow coverage so pervasive that it has officially invaded my dreams. And, also, for this: teboing.com.
3 It’s nice to have that figured out and take care of.
4 We’ve seen Mad Men, correct? It’s like that, even though Mad Men is supposed to be the 60s. Either way, you know what I’m talking about here.
5 Revolutionary Road lost to Walker Pearcy’s The Moviegoer in 1962. Also a loser that year: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. Not too shabby.
6 Which is probably why the book holds up so well.
7 Which is why it’s a tragedy and thus relates to the football season. (Yes, I’m looking at you, Viking fans.)