An Emotional Journey Down 'Revolutionary Road' Writer Anthony Giardina says Richard Yates' novel — about an ordinary suburban couple and their vague yearning for something more — is "an essential testament about mid-20th century America."


An Emotional Journey Down 'Revolutionary Road'

An Emotional Journey Down 'Revolutionary Road'

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Book Cover: 'Revolutionary Road'

Anthony Giardina is most recently the author of the novel White Guys, which was just published in paperback. He can most often be found these days contemplating his suburban garden through the smoky haze of his charcoal grill. Sigrid Estrada hide caption

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Sigrid Estrada

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 in what he calls "a hopelessly dull job;" she's a stay-at-home mother of two. They live on the street that gives the novel its title, in a cookie-cutter suburb in Connecticut.

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 pizazz, 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, when a greater sexual freedom would call all that restraint into question. Like the greatest American literature, Revolutionary Road is about inheritance: what it is we carry with us from our ancestors, what it is we can never quite shake loose from even when we believe we're breaking free. 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. "He continued to believe that something unique and splendid lived in his father's hands," is the way Yates puts it, 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 that 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 by showing 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 overfamiliar line — a line that by all rights should land like a cliché — instead becomes a heartbreaking moment. We've come to see by then just how unformed this young couple is, yet how deeply they are caught inside the world they're trying to flee.

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 Yates' clarity. The deeper I get into the life of marriage and parenthood — Yates' special territory — the more essential I find that clarity to be.

You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva.

Excerpt: 'Revolutionary Road'

Cover Image: 'Revolutionary Road'

Revolutionary Road

by Richard Yates

Paperback, 368 pages

List Price: $14.95

The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and a wonderful group of people to work with.

"It hasn't been an easy job," he said, his glasses glinting soberly around the stage. "We've had a lot of problems here, and quite frankly I'd more or less resigned myself not to expect too much. Well, listen. Maybe this sounds corny, but something happened up here tonight. Sitting out there tonight I suddenly knew, deep down, that you were all putting your hearts into your work for the first time." He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was; then he made the same hand into a fist, which he shook slowly and wordlessly in a long dramatic pause, closing one eye and allowing his moist lower lip to curl out in a grimace of triumph and pride. "Do that again tomorrow night," he said, "and we'll have one hell of a show."

They could have wept with relief. Instead, trembling, they cheered and laughed and shook hands and kissed one another, and somebody when out for a case of beer and they all sang unanimously, that they'd better knock it off and get a good night's sleep.

"See you tomorrow!" they called, as happy as children, and riding home under the moon they found they could roll down the windows of their cars and let the air in, with its health-giving smells of loam and young flowers. It was the first time many of the Laurel Players had allowed themselves to acknowledge the coming of spring.

The year was 1955 and the place was a part of western Connecticut where three swollen villages had lately been merged by a wide and clamorous highway called Route Twelve. The Laurel Players were an amateur company, but a costly and very serious one, carefully recruited from among the younger adults of all three towns, and this was to be their maiden production. All winter, gathering in one another's living rooms for excited talks about Ibsen and Shaw and O'Neill, and then for the show of hands in which a common-sense majority chose The Petrified Forest, and then for the preliminary casting, they had felt their dedication growing stronger every week. They might privately consider their director a funny little man (and he was, in a way: he seemed incapable of any but a very earnest manner of speaking, and would often conclude his remarks with a little shake of the head that caused his cheeks to wobble) but they liked and respected him, and they fully believed in most of the things he said. "Any play deserves the best that any actor has to give," he'd told them once, and another time: "Remember this. We're not just putting on a play here. We're establishing a community theater, and that's a pretty important thing to be doing."

The trouble was that from the very beginning they had been afraid they would end by making fools of themselves, and they had compounded that fear by being afraid to admit it. At first their rehearsals had been held on Saturdays—always, it seemed, on the kind of windless February or March afternoon when the sky is white, the trees are black, and the brown fields and hummocks of the earth lie naked and tender between curds of shriveled snow. The Players, coming out of their various kitchen doors and hesitating for a minute to button their coats or bull on their gloves, would see a landscape in which only a few very old, weathered houses seemed to belong; it made their own homes look as weightless and impermanent, as foolishly misplaced as a great many bright new toys that had been left outdoors overnight and rained on. Their automobiles didn't look right either—unnecessarily wide and gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each splatter of mud, they crawled apologetically down the broken roads that led from all directions to the deep, level slab of Route Twelve. Once there the cars seemed able to relax in an environment all their own, a long bright valley of colored plastic and plate glass and stainless steel—KING KONE, MOBILGAS, SHOPORAMA, EAT—but eventually they had to turn off, one by one, and make their way up the winding country road that led to the central high school; they had to pull up and stop in the quiet parking lot outside the high-school auditorium.

"Hi!" the Players would shyly call to one another.

"Hi!...""Hi!..." And they'd go reluctantly inside.

Clumping their heavy galoshes around the stage, blotting at their noses with Kleenex and frowning at the unsteady print of their scripts, they would disarm each other at last with peals of forgiving laughter, and they would agree, over and over, that there wasn't plenty of time, and they all knew it, and a doubling and redoubling of their rehearsal schedule seemed only to make matters worse. Long after the time had come for what the director called "really getting this thing off the ground; really making it happen," it remained a static, shapeless, inhumanly heavy weight; time and again they read the promise of failure in each other's eyes, in the apologetic nods and smiles of their parting and the spastic haste with which they broke for their cars and drove home to whatever older, less explicit promises of failure might lie in wait for them there.

And now tonight, with twenty-four hours to go, they had somehow managed to bring it off. Giddy in the unfamiliar feel of make-up and costumes on this first warm evening of the year, they had forgotten to be afraid: they had let the movement of the play come and carry them and break like a wave; and maybe it sounded corny (and what if it did?) but they had all put their hearts into their work. Could anyone ever ask for more than that?

The audience, arriving in a long clean serpent of cars the following night, were very serious too. Like the Players they were mostly on the young side of middle age, and they were attractively dressed in what the New York clothing stores describe as Country Casuals. Anyone could see they were a better than average crowd, in terms of education and employment and good health, and it was clear too that they considered this a significant evening. They all knew, of course, and said so again and again as they filed inside and took their seats, that The Petrified Forest was hardly one of the world's great plays. But it was, after all, a fine theater piece with a basic point of view that was every bit as valid today as in the thirties ("Even more valid," one man kept telling his wife, who chewed her lips and nodded, seeing what he meant; "even more valid, when you think about it"). The main thing, though, was not the play itself but the company – the brave idea of it, the healthy, hopeful sound of it: the birth of a really good community theater right here, among themselves. This was what had drawn them, enough of them to fill more than half the auditorium, and it was what held them hushed and tense in readiness for pleasure as the house lights dimmed.

The curtain went up on a set whose rear wall was still shaking with the impact of a stagehand's last-minute escape, and the first few lines of dialogue were blurred by the scrape and bang of accidental offstage noises. These small disorders were signs of a mounting hysteria among the Laurel Players, but across the footlights they seemed only to add to a sense of impending excellence. They seemed to say, engagingly: Wait a minute; it hasn't really started yet. We're all a little nervous here, but please bear with us. And soon there was no further need for apologies, for the audience was watching the girl who played the heroine, Gabrielle.

Her name was April Wheeler, and she caused the whispered word "lovely" to roll out over the auditorium the first time she walked across the stage. A little later there were hopeful nudges and whispers of "She's good," and there were stately nods of pride among the several people who happened to know that she had attended one of the leading dramatic schools of New York less than ten years before. She was twenty-nine, a tall ash blonde with a patrician kind of beauty that no amount of amateur lighting could distort, and she seemed ideally cast in her role. It didn't even matter that bearing two children had left her a shade too heavy in the hips and thighs, for she moved with the shyly sensual grace of maidenhood; anyone happening to glance at Frank Wheeler, the round-faced, intelligent-looking young man who sat biting his fist in the last row of the audience, would have said he looked more like her suitor than her husband.

"Sometimes I can feel as if I were sparkling all over," she was saying, "and I want to go out and do something that's absolutely crazy, and marvelous..."

Backstage, huddled and listening, the other actors suddenly loved her. Or at least they were prepared to love her, even those who had resented her occasional lack of humility at rehearsals, for she was suddenly the only hope they had.

Excerpted from Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates © 1961, 1989. Reprinted with permission by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc.