Who's afraid of Richard Yates?
The author of "Revolutionary Road," the best, most troubling book set in the Connecticut suburbs, is finally getting his due
Photograph Courtesy of Picador Press
While reading a biography of the late novelist Richard Yates, who set his dystopian masterpiece Revolutionary Road (1961) in Fairfield County, I discovered that I had a faint personal connection to the man. In July 1976 Yates had fallen into such precarious mental health that he was deposited, briefly, into the care of his friends Ruth and Arthur Roth of Amagansett, Long Island.
Things started to go awry when Yates demanded that Ruth pick up a broom and start sweeping. Supposedly he wanted to observe her technique for descriptive purposes, but Ruth, sensing a backhand volley, demurred. The Roths were then subjected to the sight of Yates — tall and gaunt with a graying beard — stripping off his clothes and running about their yard like a maniac, pasty limbs pumping and flailing in shafts of summer light. Yates’s biographer, Blake Bailey, describes the incident in A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates:
A tractor-trailer had come to a ragged stop near the Roths’ house and its driver was animatedly discussing the matter with police. “This fucking naked guy comes running into the middle of the road!” he was saying. “What the hell am I supposed to do?” The naked Yates, meanwhile,was racing around Roth’s house urinating on the walls. The police watched with folded arms.
I read this passage wide-eyed at midnight. The Roths were close family friends of ours. Possibly that same summer, oblivious of my proximity to literary greatness, I played on the lawn where the mad Yates had cavorted. I resurrect this episode not only because it’s morbidly funny, but also because it might have escaped from the pages of a Yates novel. He was a master of just this sort of scene — intrusions of messy reality into the suburban (or any other) idyll. Sometimes these intrusions carry a scent of wild, uncomfortable humor, as if an acerbic god were describing the lameness of his creation. Early in Revolutionary Road Frank and April Wheeler, the protagonists, drive home after April has bombed in a local theatrical production, and their strained bickering escalates to an all-out roadside war:
He swung out one trembling fist for a backhand blow to her head and she cowered against the fender in an ugly crumple of fear; then instead of hitting her he danced away in a travesty of boxer’s footwork and brought the fist down on the roof of the car with all his strength. He hit the car four times that way: Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! — while she stood and watched. When he was finished, the shrill, liquid chant of the peepers was the only sound for miles.
Though we snicker at Frank’s “travesty of boxer’s footwork,” the scene in its totality may remind us — men and women both — of our own roughest, most wince-inducing domestic moments. The word commonly used to describe Yates’s fiction is “bleak,” not much of a selling point in a country, said to be addicted to happy endings. Still, American realists inspired by Yates, such as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford, are pretty bleak themselves and managed to become literary superstars. Explaining Yates’s small readership, Blake Bailey remarked by e-mail, “Nobody is as bleak as Yates.”
The Connecticut novelist Stewart O’Nan, author of Last Night at the Lobster as well as an influential essay on Yates, basically agrees but offers finer shadings. Many great novelists of Yates’s generation have a “built-in attraction or marketing angle, whether to a youth market (Kerouac, Salinger, Vonnegut) or some sociopolitical niche (Mailer, Pynchon),” O’Nan said by e-mail. “His straight-ahead style should be utterly accessible to the average casual reader, but what he’s saying isn’t cool or quirky or soothing, it’s plain and worrisome and sad. His books aren’t an escape from life, or a balm for it. No one view or group wins out in the end. There are no heroes. No one gets congratulated for their suffering, or for following their dreams (just the opposite).”
Revolutionary Road is pretty hard to take. One suspects early that the Wheelers — city folk who feel superior but out of place after moving to the suburbs, and dream of absconding to Paris to capture the residual magic of the Lost Generation — will come to serious trouble. But the slow-leafing tragedy is all but unbearable once we pick up on the design. (No plot spoilers here.) It’s a measure of Yates’s command, however, that such a depressing book is no drag to read — quite the contrary — and that its final note manages to be a delicate black-comic one.
A Writer’s Writer
Yates’s publisher — Atlantic–Little, Brown — had good reason to anticipate a best-seller. Esquire had published a lengthy excerpt; movie studios had made fawning overtures; and, best of all, important critics and writers had heaped fulsome advance praise on Revolutionary Road and its unknown author. William Styron called it “A deft, ironic, beautiful novel that deserves to be a classic.” Tennessee Williams, an infrequent blurber, remarked, “If more is needed to make a masterpiece in modern American fiction, I am sure I don’t know what it is.” Later Kurt Vonnegut would call Revolutionary Road “The Great Gatsby of my generation,” invoking Yates’s own favorite writer.
By publication day, March 1, 1961, Yates seemed poised to step into the first rank of younger American novelists alongside Styron, Mailer, Capote, Updike and Roth. That’s not exactly what happened. The reviews were wildly mixed, sometimes within the same review. The New York Times’s Orville Prescott called the book “brilliantly dismal” and concluded that Yates had squandered his evident gifts on “mentally ill” protagonists not worth caring about. The few totally negative assessments said the book’s supposed theme of suburban discontent had long been exhausted. Most reviews fell more in line with Dorothy Parker’s: “A treasure, a jewel … Mr. Yates’s eyes and ears are gifts from heaven.”
But the book’s sales performance was strictly purgatorial. Despite the zealous promotional campaign and heavyweight endorsements, despite Sam Goldwyn Jr.’s declaration that he had “never read a more brilliant first novel” and John Frankenheimer’s optioning the book for film, and despite a National Book Award nomination, nothing much happened. Hardcover sales stalled at 8,900 and the movie studios backed off, unready to invest in such dark material. Instead of joining the first rank in any popular sense, Yates came to be known by that dubious epithet, “a writer’s writer,” adored by a few who count but otherwise neglected. His newfound literary respect did have its consolations, though: “After you write Revolutionary Road, you can screw anybody,” Yates once said.
Yates remained a hard-luck figure for the rest of his life. A chain-smoking alcoholic, he was twice divorced, mired in debt, and intermittently psychotic. He would habitually vomit upon waking, then do battle against a chronic, rib-rattling cough. In his drunken stupors, he burned cigarette holes in his furniture and once set himself on fire. » However, when sane and not too drunk, he was courtly, witty, and self-deprecating; and his love for his three daughters was never less than fierce.
After Revolutionary Road, Yates published two highly regarded story collections and six novels of varying quality. Some consider The Easter Parade (1976) a second, quiet, masterpiece; to be sure, it was the only Yates book to enjoy robust sales, thanks to the sweet embrace of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Meanwhile The New Yorker, which Yates dearly wanted to crack, rejected every story he ever sent them. At his death in 1992 Yates remained a writer’s writer, seemingly destined for oblivion. (He lived to see three of his books come back into print in 1989, the year I bought my copy of Revolutionary Road, but this hopeful development led nowhere.)
Stewart O’Nan bemoaned Yates’s literary fate in the Boston Review in 1999: “It may be that writers prize Yates because readers haven’t. In a business that often champions shoddy and false work over true and beautiful accomplishments, his fate confirms our worst fears and prods us to demand justice.” O’Nan worked the back channels too: “I bugged my agent to find out who Yates had for an agent, and why these books were out of print,” he told me, “and discovered the guy wasn’t even trying to shop them anymore. Crazy. So every editor that I worked with or knew, I tried to interest them in republishing Yates.”
Around this time, as though O’Nan had touched off a psychic tide of reappraisal, Blake Bailey began contemplating a Yates biography. “I had misgivings, of course,” Bailey said of embarking on a long book about a little-known subject, “but at the same time
I thought Yates was the great somewhat undiscovered canonical author of postwar American lit, and I knew such a book would if nothing else be widely reviewed, as it was.” Suddenly Richard Yates was breaking out all over. In 2000 Vintage published a new edition of Revolutionary Road, and in 2001 came his Collected Stories, an event heralded by the publication of a Yates story in The New Yorker. (One of Yates’s daughters greeted this long overdue news by shaking her father’s ashes and saying, “Way to go, Dad!”) In 2005 Time listed Revolutionary Road among its 100 all-time best English language novels.
And in the summer of 2007, Frank and April Wheeler turned up all over Fairfield County looking precisely like Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Movie makers had led Yates on for more than thirty years; now that he was dead, Sam Mendes, director of the suburban classic American Beauty (1999), had taken up the formidable challenge of putting Revolutionary Road on film. Does Mendes actually expect to fill movie theaters this winter? Blake Bailey, for his part, admits to doubts. He wrote in Slate, “In the end, would people really pay good money to see a movie in which almost everything ends badly?”
Small Town/Big Screen
It’s true that Revolutionary Road was not the first novel to deal in suburban discontent. Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, published in 1955 (and bearing the first line “By the time they had lived seven years in the little house on Greentree Avenue in Westport, Connecticut, they both detested it”), is often credited as the prototype and floodgate opener. But John Cheever, the so-called Chekhov of the suburbs, was already setting magnificent stories in the fictional Westchester suburb of Shady Hill. And John Updike would soon follow with virtuosic novels set in his invented Tarbox, Massachusetts, and Penn Park, Pennsylvania.
No suburban setting has managed to equal Fairfield County in doom or in gloom. The late Ira Levin revealed last year that he took our beloved Wilton as his model for Stepford, Connecticut, in the peerlessly creepy Stepford Wives (1972). The woodsy little town where men kill off their freethinking wives and replace them with docile neat-freak fembots still lives large in the American psyche — only now the fembots are called supermoms. Stepford Wives satirizes men’s fears of a burgeoning feminism but also works as a sci-fi critique of what Frank Wheeler calls “conformity in the suburb,” with all the small thinking that conformity implies.
Another suburban landmark film, The Ice Storm (1994), by Rick Moody, is set in the New Canaan of 1973, “the most congenial and superficially calm of suburbs.” Beneath the superficial calm, of course, things fall apart — and this is the great theme of “suburban” literature. In such books life appears beautiful on the surface, but the reality, lightly concealed beneath a veil of leaves, is plenty ugly. The characters by all appearances have achieved the American Dream, but they’re really bored, adrift, and unfulfilled, and in consequence they reach for the deceitful comforts of sex and substance. (Amusingly, at least to me, some New Canaanites bitterly protested the filming of The Ice Storm in their town, on grounds of smuttiness.) Moody rightly chafed at being labeled “a chronicler of suburbia.” The former New Canaanite once told me, only half in jest, that he considers the designation a “racial slur” against WASPs. That’s a provocative way of saying that “chronicler of suburbia” strikes an unjustly minor note, seeming to cancel out ambition or importance.
Great books “about” the suburbs aren’t really about the suburbs, even if they do limn some sad particulars of suburban life. The point of these books is never to say, “Look how terrible it is to live here,” as if the suburbs exerted some malign influence on blameless people. Yates himself said of Revolutionary Road during an interview in 1972, “The book was widely read as an anti-suburban novel, and that disappointed me. The Wheelers may have thought the suburbs were to blame for all their problems, but I meant it to be implicit in the text that that was their delusion, their problem, not mine.”
So what was really going on?
Yates never names the town where Frank and April Wheeler play out their marital drama, but he drops hints: Stamford is a nearby provincial city; the leafy landscape is dotted with new homes that look “weightless and impermanent” beside the properly weathered farmhouses; and the automobiles, “gleaming in the colors of candy and ice cream, seeming to wince at each spatter of mud,” make their way down to “the deep, level slab of Route Twelve,” which possibly is our own Route Seven. One can deduce this with confidence after reading Blake Bailey’s lively biography, which tells us that Yates, his wife, and their young daughter moved to Redding in 1955, the year in which Revolutionary Road is set. It was in a modest ranch house (weightless, impermanent) on Old Redding Road that Yates began writing his first and best novel.
“Yates loathed living in Redding,” Bailey said when interviewed. This sentiment owed much to his personal circumstances. Obliged to make hefty mortgage payments to his detested mother-in-law, he spent too much time churning out PR copy and too little time crafting literature. Also, Bailey said, “he had to live among dull burghers like the Kowalskys,” an engineer and his wife with whom the Yateses spent many a drink-sodden night despite having little in common.
At least Yates found suitable models for his fiction: His mother-in-law emerges as the busybody Mrs. Givings of Revolutionary Road, while the Kowalskys are refashioned as the dim, stolid, resolutely suburban Campbells. Richard and Sheila Yates (who would be divorced before the book was published) form a rough basis for the ill-fated Wheelers. None of the characters in Revolutionary Road are very likable, but Yates pulls off the tightrope trick of rendering them all with such grace and depth that we might see bits of ourselves in their thwarted desires.
Yates describes their Connecticut enclave as “invincibly cheerful,” a middle-class haven where people gather at sunset over highballs and make banal chitchat. Frank Wheeler, cocktail in hand, enjoys the mutinous thrill of charging into the subject of clueless suburbanites:
It’s as if everybody’d made this agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. To hell with reality! Let’s have a whole bunch of cute little winding roads and cute little houses painted white and pink and baby blue; let’s all be good consumers and have a lot of Togetherness and bring our children up in a bath of sentimentality… and if old reality ever does pop out and say Boo we’ll all get busy and pretend it never happened.
Despite his contempt for the suburbs, Frank can’t, in the end, bring himself to renounce its comforts. He’s all blather. Blake Bailey makes the point that readers might identify uneasily with Frank’s intellectual pretensions: “There was this postwar utopian idea of the suburbs to the effect that, now that the American middle class could live comfortably and cheaply and with plenty of leisure, they’d Find Themselves — i.e., read books and think large thoughts and so on. Yates knew that what they’d really do — what they’d prefer to do — is stand around flipping burgers and watching TV and dream of all the big things they’d do if only they didn’t have to go to the dumb job in the city and flip so many burgers, etc.”
That’s Frank all right, and it might be some of us, too. In Revolutionary Road, only April, for all her faults, has the nerve, honesty and perhaps desperation to act on her dreams — and therein lie the seeds of tragedy. Yates once said his true theme concerns the loneliness that exists between people. Certainly, April’s bewilderment as Frank worms out of their Paris dream opens a final, unbridgeable gulf between the two.
As for the Connecticut suburbs, a place so often associated with the good life: What role do they play in this story? Why is the book set here? That Yates should enact a drama of loneliness among the vigorously sociable neighbors of the Revolutionary Hill Estates sharpens
the loneliness; that a tragedy should play out in this invincibly cheerful suburb amplifies the shock. If the shock feels uniquely upsetting to some, perhaps it’s because Revolutionary Road is the first great American tragedy set on ground recognizably our own. It’s as though Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary lived in the Westport of Bewitched or in the house down the street. “The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy,” Yates writes as Frank bolts into the Connecticut night after the climactic event has occurred. “A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.”
Yates’s suburbs are now a ghost. Gape-windowed ranches still exist, but mostly they’ve been torn down and replaced with starter mansions. The transformation is really more psychic than physical. Revolutionary Road emerged into a mainstream America that was probably ill-suited to handle it, an America of Ozzie, Harriet and Beaver Cleaver, an America where even atomic warfare could generate a cute response: duck and cover. The fuzzy optimism that prevailed through the fifties has long since dimmed toward the Yatesian.
We’re much less innocent now. Much more complicated. Why? Choose your reason: drugs, divorce, war, broken faith, dubious leadership, computers and cell phones, seismic shifts in race, gender, ethnicity, the workplace … all reflected in recent incarnations of suburban literature. Despite some critics’ assurances that such books were passé in 1961, our fascination with the suburbs never went away and never will. From TV shows like The Sopranos and Desperate Housewives to novels like Tom Perrotta’s Little Children, Alice McDermott’s That Night and A. M. Homes’s Music for Torching, storytellers keep finding new twists on the suburbs as the suburbs evolve. Now that we, the twenty-first century audience, are more willing to gaze into the darkness of our own backyards, perhaps Yates will finally win the audience he deserves.
“I think Yates will always be kept alive by writers and teachers, and that the trickle-down effect will spread his work through the generations the way it did with Fitzgerald’s,” Stewart O’Nan said. “He’d be happy to hear that, wouldn’t he? And maybe the movie will bring in more casual readers. His place in the American canon isn’t quite secure yet, but it’s in better shape than it was ten years ago.”