ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Writer Anthony Giardina lives in the suburbs that he writes about. He admits that suburban angst is a theme much explored in contemporary literature. But no one, he says, covers the territory so exquisitely and with so much gusto for the tiny perfect detail as Richard Yates who wrote "Revolutionary Road." That's his pick for this week's You Must Read This.
ANTHONY GIARDINA: Frank and April Wheeler, the protagonists of Richard Yates' 1961 novel "Revolutionary Road," are, in the most basic sense, ordinary people. He works in the city. She's a stay-at-home mother of two. They live on the street that gives the novel its title.
In the 300-plus pages of the novel, nothing all that extraordinary happens to them, at least not until the end. Frank and April deal with dissatisfaction and fear, with pregnancy and ambition, and with the dream of escape. Yet in spite of this lack of surface pizzazz, "Revolutionary Road" seems, each time I read it, ever more moving and ever more an essential testament about mid-20th-century America.
Anyone living in the suburbs, as I do, is going to recognize Frank and April's world, but Yates sets his novel very precisely in 1955, that fulcrum year, when America was tipped halfway toward the previous quarter century of restraint and doing without, and half toward the future. Like the greatest American literature, "Revolutionary Road" is about inheritance. Frank wants to be a suburban rebel, his own man, but he can't stop feeling his world as a diminished place next to his father's. And though we eventually learn how small and threatened the old man's world was, that phrase speaks to the continuing burden of the past.
There's another element of the past Yates evokes beautifully. The way the 1920s lost generation instilled in its sons and daughters growing up in the '50s, the dream of escape to Europe. Filtering through Frank and April's days, you can breathe the scent of the old American romanticism and the way it hovered over ordinary couples like these.
But maybe, the novel suggests, it also poisoned them. Frank and April feel a growing emotional distance from their safe and cozy suburban world. Yates charts this not only by rendering in brilliant detail what was so truly stifling about the expectations of the '50s, but he also shows us how the dream of voyages became a too-easy and ill-thought-out escape hatch for those who considered themselves superior to that world.
When April announces, late in the novel, "I don't know who I am," that over familiar line, a line that by all rights should land like a cliche, instead, becomes a heartbreaking moment.
Richard Yates was a famously pessimistic writer. And there's no question that "Revolutionary Road," while a hugely pleasurable read, is not an easy one emotionally. Every time I read it, I start to see the world the way Yates did -the clothes hanging on my clothesline begin to look a little shabby, my suburban house in some desperate need of repair. But that's a small price to pay for Richard Yates' clarity.
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SIEGEL: Anthony Giardina is the author of "White Guys." You can find more You Must Read This picks at npr.org.
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