Richard Yates’ REVOLUTIONARY ROAD is one of my top ten favorite novels, and it’s not just because Mr. Yates used to drink (copiously) down the street from me in Boston, at a bar called The Crossroads (where I also used to drink–copiously–in grad school).
Some of you may have seen the excellent movie version (starring with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) of a mid-20th-century marriage in screaming dissolution and thought, Who are these people, and what the hell makes them act that way toward each other? But that’s part of Yates’s genius, because so many of us squirm in uneasy recognition and think: Oh. That’s me.
Not that all of us have smashed our spousal unions in 1961 Connecticut. But Yates is so good at the delicate machinations of self-interest that bloom so dangerously in relationships. He’s a master at charting his characters’ internal landscapes. He’s a genius at capturing people’s kindnesses and trespasses, their hopes and insecurities, their hypocrisies and plotting. And he’s totally unsentimental about it, showing the ugly alongside the beautiful, which makes me trust him. Consider the recognizable honesty of Frank Wheeler’s observations of his wife, April:
“Nowhere in these plans had [Frank] foreseen the weight and shock of reality; nothing had warned him that he might be overwhelmed by the swaying, shining vision of a girl….and that then before his very eyes she would dissolve and change into the graceless, suffering creature whose existence he tried every day of his life to deny but whom he knew as well and as painfully as he knew himself, a gaunt constricted woman whose red eyes flashed reproach, whose false smile…was as homely as his own sore feet, his own damp climbing underwear and his own sour smell.”
Yet there’s such tenderness, too:
“[The Wheeler children] could lie drowsing now under the sound of kindly voices in the living room, a sound whose intricately rhythmic rise and fall would slowly turn into the shape of their dreams. And if they came awake later to turn over and reach with their toes for new cool places in the sheets, they knew the sound would still be there–one voice very deep and the other soft and pretty, talking and talking, as substantial and soothing as a blue range of mountains seen from far away.”
If you want to know what makes people act the way they do, read Richard Yates.
** And if you’re in the Boston area and want to come to a REVOLUTIONARY ROAD book club I’m hosting at Newtonville Books, please join us for discussion on Thursday, Feb. 26th at 7 PM! **