The position of Richard Yates’ novel Revolutionary Road (Vintage) as one of Hollywood’s fascinations this season reflects the American moment.
Leonardo DiCaprio with Kate Winslet in the film version of Revolutionary Road.
Yates’ postwar vision of American suburban life transfers well to Sam Mendes’ film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
The novel’s portrait of a young New York couple, newly moved to the outlying suburbs, is packed with crisp period detail. The ice-cream coloured cars, the under-populated green expanses of new residential developments, the particularity of mid-1950s clothing and homes all lend themselves to the kind of recreation that filmmakers and actors love to attempt.
But another aspect of the novel – its corrosive portrait of young people whose work, child-rearing and half-baked philosophies make them miserable – seems apt for a moment when Americans doubt their past leadership, their global influence and their economic future.
Frank and April Wheeler, whose frustration and emptiness are at the core of Yates’ vision, are anything but romantic as they struggle over deep differences in their views of the future. Frank despises his daily grind in New York City at an early computer industry behemoth that is a lightly satirized portrait of IBM. April imagines their lives as saveable, only if they follow their youthful ideals to a new life in Paris.
In the background, as they struggle toward a disastrous outcome, is April’s unwillingness to bear their third child and her temptation to perform an abortion in secret, without telling her husband of her plans.
Aspects of Revolutionary Road will remind readers of other major American novels. The portrait of postwar New York is reminiscent of Saul Bellow’s early work, and the satiric view of an office existence in Manhattan’s skyscrapers is a genre all its own, beginning with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and carrying on through such contemporary takes on this theme as Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City.
Frank Wheeler’s pre-suburban existence, in a rough walk-up in Greenwich Village, is a chapter out of Beat America, as it was portrayed by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
Though Revolutionary Road brought Yates critical and popular acclaim, in recent years it remained a cult book, a kind of underground classic, until its revival for the purposes of Hollywood (press materials for the recent film suggest that it was the single-minded efforts of actress Winslet that brought the book to the screen).
Yates’ career foundered after Revolutionary Road. His next books received critical acclaim, but their author dissipated himself in alcoholic bouts, teaching creative writing in far-flung American universities in Iowa and Kansas. There is a dark romance in such writerly decline, and Yates’ new popularity seems to be based, in part, on the myth of a failed creative genius.
Revolutionary Road is itself cinematic. It is full of wonderful set pieces in cars, in living rooms, in light-dappled kitchens. Frank and April go about their business with drama and manic energy, but the overall effect of Yates’ vision is a sense of postwar emptiness and waste.
Norman Ravvin is chair of Concordia University’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His books include the novel Lola by Night and the story collection Sex, Skyscrapers and Standard Yiddish.