One of the hoariest clichés of American popular culture is anti-suburban sentiment. Common throughout literature, film, and television, it arguably received its most tuneful expression in Malvina Reynolds’s 1962 song “Little Boxes,” which disparages the tracts of affordable housing that were blanketing America, from sea to shining sea, during the postwar boom: “Little boxes made of ticky tacky.” The song has the inhabitants of those homes in its crosshairs, too. Men who go to college, get married, raise a family, go into business, and behave in a predictable fashion are not to be commended for partaking of and perpetuating the everyday joys of life. Like their houses, “they’re all made out of ticky tacky / And they all just look the same”: mediocrities and vulgarians.
The American suburbs and their residents were a favorite subject of major novelists at midcentury. Traditional menswear stood for soul-killing conventionality in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which presented the quest for the middle-class lifestyle as a fool’s errand. Toss in Max Shulman’s Rally Round the Flag, Boys! (1956), John Cheever’s The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1960), and you have the beginnings of a genre that proved sufficiently durable to spawn such distinguished later entrants as Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm (1994). These books may have strayed stylistically from the picket-fence parody of “Little Boxes,” but they stayed true to the genre’s trite anti-conformism.
Some say the locus classicus of the anti-suburban novel is Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road, which was a critical triumph on its publication six decades ago this year. A finalist for the National Book Award, it (along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Bernard Malamud’s A New Life) lost out to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The standard view holds that, in his tale of up-and-coming married couple Frank and April Wheeler’s attempts to flee the suburbs, Yates sympathized with their contempt for the monotony and conformity of the commuter belt. (Former New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani wrote breathlessly of Yates’s “indelible portrait of lost promises and mortgaged hopes in the suburbs of America.”) This perspective was adopted in Sam Mendes’s 2008 film version of the novel, which presented the glamorous stars of Titanic—Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet—uncomfortably residing in what, to them, must be the middle of nowhere.
In fact, Yates was inveighing against the Wheelers’ inveighing. Revolutionary Road isn’t anti-suburbia: It is pro-family and implicitly pro-life.
On the surface, Revolutionary Road does indeed read as a brief against the suburbs. Its title, like “Little Boxes,” refers to the uninspiring sprawl that was beginning to reshape the landscape even in 1950s Connecticut. Early in the book, the Wheelers are taken on a home-buying expedition by a real estate broker with the Dickensian name of Mrs. Givings. She shows them a house on Revolutionary Road:
One of our nice little local builders put it up right after the war, you see. . . . It’s really rather a sweet little house and a sweet little setting. Simple, clean lines, good lawns, marvelous for children.
These are not qualities to be disdained, but Frank and April, whose outward conventionality masks profound but ill-defined pretensions, evince something other than gratitude after settling in to their little box. Frank, discontented with his job at Knox Business Machines, rails against his surroundings in terms that resemble the anti-phoniness screeds of a J. D. Salinger hero:
It’s as if everybody’d made this tacit agreement to live in a state of total self-deception. The 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.
April turns her stray thoughts into tangible, if hapless, action. In the calamitous scene that opens the book, she feeds her delusion that she could have been a great actress by starring in an utterly inept amateur theater production of The Petrified Forest. Yates had a special feeling for the embarrassment that can accompany striving. According to Blake Bailey’s magisterial 2003 biography, Yates’s mother nurtured a lifelong ambition to attain renown as a sculptress. Yates himself coveted literary fame and prestige on par with his peers, such as William Styron, but was unable to liberate himself from his day jobs—first as a copywriter, later as a college instructor.
If Yates had intended Revolutionary Road merely as a sendup of suburbia, he could have portrayed the production of The Petrified Forest as a noble triumph that goes rudely unacknowledged by the audience members in their “Country Casuals.” Instead, the actors onstage come in for Yates’s most devastating descriptions. The leading man, having fallen ill, is replaced by the hapless director, and April, frazzled by this casting substitution, founders: “Despite her heavy make-up you could see the warmth of humiliation rising in her face and neck.” What bogs down Frank and April Wheeler is not their milieu but the shortcomings of their own souls.
“The book was widely read as an antisuburban novel, and that disappointed me,” Yates said in a 1972 interview in Ploughshares. “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.”
Revolutionary Road shows that not everyone is destined to be more than a housewife or a loyal soldier at Knox Business Machines. Yet the Wheelers insist that they will not be bound to a way of life they consider beneath them, nor to things that might impede their high-flown notion of themselves—such as, for instance, children. As the novel opens, Frank and April are parents to a pair of children, Jennifer and Michael, but Yates shows in a flashback that the news of April’s first pregnancy was regarded, especially by her, as a vexation. When April proposes aborting the child to preserve the life she had imagined for herself, revealing that she had sought out advice on how to undertake the procedure and even purchased a rubber syringe, Frank is appalled but also emasculated—denied, in Yates’s sympathetic telling, the chance to intervene on behalf of his child:
If she’d thought about him at all it was only as a possible hitch in the scheme, a source of tiresome objections that would have to be cleared up and disposed of if the thing were to be carried out with maximum efficiency.
The pattern repeats itself not long after April suggests, and Frank assents to, a preposterous plan to move the family from Connecticut to Paris, where their lives will magically become grander, nobler, happier. “You’ll be finding yourself,” April says. “You’ll be reading and studying and taking long walks and thinking.”
Yates initially presents the planned relocation as a semi-plausible daydream, describing Frank and April as they plot out their future, “each with a cup of black Italian coffee and a cigarette” each evening after work. Frank allows himself to question settling so quickly on Paris, rather than Rome or Venice, but he does not doubt that they are suited for the Continent. “Anyone could picture her conquering Europe,” Yates writes wryly of April, who, amid a shopping spree that includes travel brochures and luggage, buys a Babar picture book for the kids.
The kids—what about the kids? Frank, whose new prospects for advancement at his company give him pause about chucking it all for Paris, begins to disengage from April’s plan after their daughter is found stewing, and then sobbing, about the transatlantic move. In dribs and drabs, Yates allows reality to intrude on fantasy until history repeats itself with a thud: April is again pregnant at an inopportune time. In a single sharp, swift sentence, Yates depicts Frank’s relief at this news—not because he particularly wants another mouth to feed, but because it forecloses what increasingly looks to be a Parisian debacle: “The pressure was off; life had come mercifully back to normal.” Yet April, not so easily disabused, states her intention to end the pregnancy.
Thus begins one of the most harrowing stretches in any twentieth-century novel, and Revolutionary Road’s true theme comes into focus. In the interview in Ploughshares, Yates recalled being asked about the subject of his new novel and responding that it was about abortion. “And the guy said what do you mean by that?” said Yates (who seems to have been a conventional liberal and at one point wrote speeches for Robert F. Kennedy). “And I said, it’s going to be built on a series of abortions, of all kinds—an aborted play, several aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and aborted dreams—all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a death at the end.”
Well, which of these abortions is not like the other? Yates may have seized on the metaphorical possibilities of the practice when speaking with an interviewer, but nowhere in the novel is the failure of The Petrified Forest or the Wheelers’ stymied scheme to move to Paris treated as a tragedy on the level of April’s determination to end the life of her third child. Strikingly, Yates again casts Frank—who, as an adulterer, is no saint—in the strange, awful role of a parent advocating for a child whose life is threatened by its other parent. Yet Frank proceeds cautiously, almost gingerly, as he tries to charm April into changing her mind. “The idea he had to sell, after all, was clearly on the side of the angels,” Yates writes.
Yes, Frank is crass for thinking in terms of selling and buying—but his idea is on the side of the angels. Rather pitifully, Frank endeavors to show April how good their lives will be if they stay on Revolutionary Road with their brood of soon-to-be three. For April’s benefit, Frank eagerly plays with their children and dutifully mows the grass—“all to demonstrate that a man confronted with this bleakest and most unnatural of conjugal problems, a wife unwilling to bear his child, could still be nice.” When, in conversation, April tries to minimize the practice of abortion, Frank will have none of it: “But at her every mention of how safe it was he would puff out his cheeks and blow, frowning and shaking his head.”
Yates’s account of Frank’s “campaign” to dissuade April from the abortion is riveting; it appeals to every reader’s intuitive sense of the wrongness of what she contemplates. We grasp that a human life hangs in the balance, and we hope, with each bit of common sense given and each bit of love shown, that Frank will cause April to see a better way.
Alas, Yates, whose novels have a kind of resplendent fatalism, cannot imagine a world in which Frank’s pleas will outweigh April’s resolve. In the book’s bleakest, most unadorned section, April proceeds with a self-abortion that not only claims her life and that of her unborn child but tears asunder her surviving family. At last the remaining Wheelers depart their complacent suburban neighborhood, but no intelligent reader will assign blame to their address. Two lives have been sacrificed on the altar of wishing to be perceived as smarter, more stylish, and more cultured than the neighbors.
Earlier in the book, when April seems to have agreed to proceed with the pregnancy, Yates evocatively describes Frank pulling up to his home with a fresh fondness—a recognition that a life of conventional satisfactions can be rewarding, so long as major crises are averted. “It wasn’t such a bad house after all,” he writes.
It looked, as John Givings had once said, like a place where people lived—a place where the difficult, intricate process of living could sometimes give rise to incredible harmonies of happiness and sometimes to near-tragic disorder.
Their home on Revolutionary Road was never the source of Frank and April Wheeler’s misery. It might have been the only thing that could have saved them.
Peter Tonguette writes from Columbus, Ohio.