Neglected No More: Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road

December 20th, 2008

Although it was a National Book Award finalist when first published in 1961, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road has been a perennial on lists of neglected books, starting with David Madden’s first Rediscoveries compilation in 1971.

As the old joke goes, death was a good career move for Yates. Slowly but steadily, his star has been rising since his passing in 1992, despite the fact that as late as 1999, Stewart O’Nan was writing in the Boston Review of “The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the great writer of the Age of Anxiety disappeared from print.” However, it’s safe to say that it’s now reaching its apogee with the impending release of the Revolutionary Road, directed by Sam Mendes and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio.

In anticipation, two of America’s biggest literary magazines, the Atlantic and the New Yorker published feature reviews of the book by two “first call” critics–Christopher Hitchens for the Atlanticand James Wood for the New Yorker. Of the two, Wood’s is the must read, as his often are–respecting, insightful, but cutting when necessary, as in this comment:

That first novel was Revolutionary Road (1961)—the basis of a new movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet— and it could be said to have dissolved its creator’s career even as it founded it, because Yates never published a novel half as good again. To put it brutally, he had about ten good years. His later fiction was compulsive but not compelling, necessary to him but not to his readers, who would always chase the fire of his first novel in the embers of its successors.

Having read all of his novels short of Cold Spring Harbor and most of his short stories, my experience of reading Yates was very much one of chasing the fire.

Thirty years after first reading Revolutionary Road, I can still remember the amazing scene in the hospital, where Yates subtly shifts the point of view to that of Shep Campbell so that he can land the narrative punch with maximum impact. After locking us into April Wheeler’s perspective, we wander off with Shep to grab a cup of coffee only to come back and find that April is dead. It remains one of the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced in reading.

After that, I went on to read most of Yates’ work over the next year, and although he often succeeds in drawing the reader into the world of failure, disappointment, and desparate dreams, The Easter Parade aside, he never quite manages to bring the pieces together as well.

In further recognition of Yates’ ascendancy, Everyman’s Library is releasing in January 2009 a one-volume edition collecting his three best books: Revolutionary Road, The Easter Parade , and his first short story collection, Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.

Reading Hitchens’ and Wood’s reviews reminded me of one aspect of Revolutionary Road‘s story of the disillusioned young couple, Frank and April Wheeler. Their dream for escaping the conventional suburban Connecticut life they believe they should abhor is to run off to Paris, where April will get a job working at NATO Headquarters (then still in Paris) and Frank will work in his writing. Ironically, this is very nearly what Fred Holland and Sally White do in George Goodman’s A Time for Paris, recently reviewed on this site. And after Fred and Sally have their European adventure and lived Frank and April’s dream, what do they end up doing?

Getting married and settling down in the suburbs outside New York City.

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