Post Road Magazine #16

The Promise of Failure, or Why You Should Drop Everything You’re Doing and Read Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road Right Now!

by John McNally

In 1988, Richard Yates was scheduled to teach a summer workshop at the University of Iowa, but he was too sick and had to bow out at the last minute. I had signed up for that workshop, but I hadn’t read anything by him. Truth be told, I’m glad I hadn’t read his work. What I didn’t know then was that Yates’s first novel, Revolutionary Road, would become my favorite novel, and I’m not sure I would have recovered from the blow of being offered to take a course by the man who’d written my favorite book, only to have the offer cruelly snatched away from me. (Okay, I would have recovered—I’m being melodramatic here—but you get the idea. It would have sucked.) But some part of me is also grateful that I never met the man either. After reading A Tragic Honesty, Blake Bailey’s magnificent Richard Yates biography, I got the distinct feeling that Yates, like so many of his protagonists, was a train wreck whose personal disasters often sucked in those around him. While reading about Yates’s life, I found myself saying, as I do so many times while reading Revolutionary Road, “Oh, no, don’t do that! Don’t say that! Don’t go there!” And yet, like his flawed characters, Yates would inevitably do or say the very thing I’d hoped he wouldn’t, at which point disaster would ensue.

In short, Revolutionary Road is the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a couple in their late twenties, with two kids, who believe that they’ve sold short their life’s dreams and decide, with disastrous results, to remedy that.

The first time I read Revolutionary Road, I was twenty-three years old, with my first university teaching position, writing my first novel, and living with the woman I would eventually (in less than a year) marry. Oh, yes, the brightest of futures lay ahead of me! I read Revolutionary Road and loved it, but what most attracted me to the book was Yates’s wry (and subtle) humor, the ways in which he would nail characterization in just a few words, and the freshness of his similes. It was a great book—I saw that instantly—but I had barely begun to scratch the book’s surface.

Three months into my first marriage I was already bracing myself for divorce. Something—I wasn’t sure what—had gone terribly awry in our relationship, and I knew (or sensed) that the end was near. My first novel was starting to accumulate rejections, and in a moment of grief and confusion I turned in my resignation to the English Department, even though I had nothing else lined up. My employment would effectively cease in May, once the semester was over. It was at this point in my life that I read Revolutionary Road for the second time.

I still appreciated all of the same things I had admired the first time around, but this time I had to keep catching my breath, afraid that I might break down and start weeping while I read the damned thing. In other words, Frank and April’s failures hit a little too close to home. It wasn’t necessary for me to live through what I was living through in order to appreciate Yates’s novel, but what I saw now that I had failed to see previously was how perfectly (how brilliantly) Yates captured life’s downward spiral, which could come as fast as that (something Yates himself knew well). And what I realized, upon this reading, was that Revolutionary Road was the great American tragedy, no less so than Death of a Salesman. More so, I believed. Could this be that elusive Great American Novel that everyone has been searching for? I happen to think so. Yes. (There. I said it.)

I’m forty-two now, and I have read Revolutionary Road many times since that second revelatory time, and I am no less astonished by this book’s perfection. Every word is the right word; every semicolon is perfectly placed. You feel the spirit of Yates hovering over the story, but you never feel his presence in a clever or self-conscious way. He hovers over the novel as Charles Dickens or Gabriel García Márquez hover over theirs.

Revolutionary Road, more so than any other novel, is the book I press into readers’ hands and say, “You must read this.” It’s also the book that, more than any other, I use as a litmus test. We all have one of those books, don’t we? The one upon which we judge the people we’ve given it to, based on their reactions to it? I don’t mean to use it as a litmus test; it just happens. Do you like this novel? Will we be friends? I’m not an elitist (if anything, most of my tastes are pretty lowbrow: Stooges, anyone?), but when someone tells me that they didn’t much care for this book, I find it hard to look them in the eye afterward. (In all honesty, this has happened only a few times—once with a colleague where I teach, and once with a fellow writer, who told me he “couldn’t relate to characters living in suburbia,” as if the criterion for fiction is that the reader must first “relate” to it in order to find the beauty and worth in it. I mean, the fact that I wasn’t in Vietnam shouldn’t diminish my admiration for Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, should it?)

I’ve never been good at giving the hard sell for anything. Perhaps the best thing I can do here is end with one of my favorite passages. It’s from the opening chapter, in which an amateur theater group rehearses for a play that they threw themselves into, months earlier, with the highest of hopes:

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 was plenty of time to smooth the thing out. But 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.

John McNally is author of three works of fiction: Troublemakers, The Book of Ralph, and America’s Report Card.

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