Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961) or Why is Richard Yates a Writer’s Writer?

Revolutionary Road

The first time I came across the name Richard Yates was in 2006 when his short story collection Eleven Kinds of Loneliness was translated into German. All the big newspapers reviewed and praised it. I think that must have been about the same time, he was rediscovered in the US, which then led to the translations. I’m not sure why it took me another nine years to finally pick up one of his books. Be it as it may, I’m so glad I finally did. After finishing Revolutionary Road, I started to read up on him and that’s when I came across this very long, very insightful article by Stewart O’Nan: The Lost World of Richard Yates. It was written in 1999 – before the rediscovery. It’s interesting because O’Nan not only tries to capture why he thinks Yates is an amazing author but also goes into lengthy musings on why he was never successful. For me, it wasn’t surprising that it took so long to discover him in Germany, but that he wasn’t successful in the US or other English-speaking countries did come as a surprise. Stewart O’Nan’s central thesis is that Yates is a writer’s writer. Not a typical one, though. I’ll get to that again, after the review of Revolutionary Road.

Revolutionary Road tells the story of Frank and April Wheeler, a young couple who’s living in the suburbs of New York. The book opens with an amateur play in which April has the main role. At first it looks like it could be a success. Initially, April’s performance is good enough to make her husband fantasize what her success will mean for them. He imagines how April will be admired and how it will ultimately make him a center of admiration too and how he will pretend to be all modest about it. But then the play goes wrong and turns into a farce, exposing all the actors, including April to ridicule. It’s a devastating moment. Not so much because the play goes wrong but because the Wheeler’s dreams are shattered. April, who studied acting once, isn’t a good actress after all. And Frank, who imagined his wife’s stellar performance would reflect on him as well, feels just as ashamed as she does, maybe even more so.

This scene is a perfect introduction to the novel and the couple April and Frank Wheeler. While the outcome is dramatic for them, it’s not as such tragic but it contains all the elements of the future tragedy.

Yates introduces us here to a couple who lives a somewhat mediocre life. He’s working for a company he doesn’t appreciate, doing a job that bores him to death. She’s a housewife and stay-at-home-mom, the last thing she ever wanted to be. This as such is sad but what makes it sadder is the fact that they still think they are special and different from anybody else. But every time they want to prove themselves that they are more cultivated, wittier, unconventional, their unrealistic dreams crash against reality and leave them bitter, disillusioned, and filled with an anger they take out on each other.

I must admit, it took me over a hundred pages until I started to appreciate what Yates was doing. I hated and despised these two characters so much. Their aspirations and pretences showed us that they were anything but special but mediocre and petty. Since one of Yates’s admittedly brilliant techniques is to show us Frank’s interior monologue, we’re constantly in the head of a real douchebag. As I said, I was so distracted by the story and found the characters so off-putting, that I almost missed to pay attention to Yates’s narrative techniques. Not only is it brilliant to let Frank’s interior monologue clash with reality, it’s also quite funny.

At the heart of the story is April’s dream to leave and start a new life in Paris. The interesting thing about it is that while it may seem wild, it’s a totally feasible plan, yet they are bound to fail. Why and how they fail is shown in a masterful way.

The most tragic and paradoxical thing about April and Frank Wheeler isn’t that they never live their dream but that they try, if only for a very brief moment, to live it.

I said at the beginning of this post that Yates was, for a long time, considered to be a writer’s writer. This was surprising to me at first because usually writer’s writers are stylists, often using lyrical prose. Yates does write well but his writing is accessible, smooth, simple, almost free of figures of speech. He’s not strong on descriptions, hardly uses atmosphere or mood. So what is it then? It’s amazing how brilliantly he describes people and their interactions. His dialogue and interior monologue is sharp and witty. But more than that, his choices of scenes and structure are admirable. I wondered constantly – how will he capture this or that? Whose point of view will he choose next? And, most importantly – how will he end this novel? I wasn’t interest in the ending from a plot perspective but from a perspective of author’s choice. I felt that there had to be a major “bang”. What would it be?

These are reasons why I agree with O’Nan— he is a writer’s writer. After having found O’Nan’s essay,  I came across John Mullan’s four part piece on Revolutionary Road in The Guardian – you can find it here Part I Imaginary Dialogue, Part II The Epigraph, Part II Comic Dialogue, Part IV The Ending. Reading it confirmed my impressions. Yates is a highly conscious writer. His style may be effortless, his structure and narrative choices are not. One just has to think of the title. Revolutionary Road is the street on which the Wheelers live. It’s close to a suburban nightmare called “Revolutionary Hill”, where all the houses are candy-colored, cute abominations. Not so the Wheeler’s street and house. Nonetheless, it’s suburbia and even in a part that’s not as affluent. Knowing that they read signs and interpret them in a spirit of self-aggrandisement, the name of the road becomes ironic. The Wheeler’s are a lot of things but they are not revolutionary nor rebellious. If anything they are self-deluded and narcissistic.

Revolutionary Road was my first Richard Yates but it won’t be the last. I’m already halfway through Easter Parade and want to read Cold Spring Harbor and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness after that.

I had to watch the movie after finishing the book. Of course, it’s not as good but what bothered me the most was that the Frank Wheeler in the movie was almost likable.

57 thoughts on “Richard Yates: Revolutionary Road (1961) or Why is Richard Yates a Writer’s Writer?

  1. Great review Caroline.

    I saw the 2008 film but have not read the book. I remember thinking that the movie was really good.

    Based on your commentary the writing style sounds so well crafted. The themes also seem like they would be of interest to me. I want to read this book.

    • Thanks, Brain. It’s a brilliant book. The movie is very good too but the book is so much better. It too ke me a while to warm to Yates but now I’m hooked and will read as much of his books as possible.I hope you’ll read it too. I’d love to hear what you think of it.

  2. Fantastic commentary Caroline. Very insightful about structure and POV. I’ve read all his novels, and mean to reread them, so I will pay attention to the things you’ve highlighted.

    I think he’s a fantastic writer. As you say the tension is between the aspiration (often in itself a reasonable one) and the doomed attempt to achieve it. The notion of being “different” or “a cut above” is a common one as well – people striving in stunted ways to be “artistic”, with generally gruesome and self-defeating outcomes. It must have been infuriating for Yates, as a genuine but unrecognised artist, to come across these types of pretentious and deluded notions.

    One of the things that struck me most reading him is how he uses expressions, especially smiles. Characters often give smiles that are symbols of dissatisfaction and dismay. Frowns as well, often as little visual place holders while characters try to figure out what’s happening or how to respond, or try to regulate themselves before they lash out of give something away.

    And of course, throughout Yates, there’s the booze.

    I haven’t read that O’Nan piece, so the link is appreciated. My last resort now is the collected stories, which I’m hoarding. Well, that and rereads, as I said. Look forward to your thoughts on the other books.

    • Thanks, Ian, I’m so glad to hear you like him too. I really feel like reading everything he’s written. He’s got a very light touch, which works well. The language never draws attention to itself.
      And he’s a writer who makes me want to read closely and dig deeper.So often, a book is finished when I close its cover. Not with this one.
      I must pay attention to the smiles. Very interesting. i hadn’t noticed. Now that you mention it – there’s a lot of booze in these pages.
      I agree, it’s pretty common to have aspirations and then not follow through but so many people just think “I would have or coule have if . . .”. The Wheeler’s realization is more tragic. The realize “No, I couldn’t. I didn’t because I knew, I couldn’t.” It’s honest but shattering.
      I loved O’Nan’s careful take on him. Given that he wrote it in 1999, I wonder if he wasn’t to some extent responsible for the rediscovery.
      I’m very curious to see what kind of a short story writer he is. He’s an excellent novelist, that’s for sure.

  3. Insightful review! I have a couple of Yates on my tbr and since I’m doing the tbr triple dare I think there is a good chance I’ll get to one before the end of March. I recently read a very glowing review of The Easter Parade so perhaps I’ll start there (I don’t have a copy of Revolutionary Road).

  4. Yes I found Easter Parade very different! I loved Revolutionary Road, in fact you’ve made me want to re-read it and I think it might have gone to the charity shop 😦 ! Thank you for all these links too, all by similarly wonderful writers…I can see me buying another copy! Great review, absolutely.

    • Thanks, crimeworm. Glad you liked it. 🙂 Easter Parade is very different. Too bad you gave your copy of Revolutionary Road away. I could imagine rereading this.
      I thought those articles were great.

  5. Amazing review/post! Yates is one of my favourite writers for the exact reason you’ve outlined here. His attention to the craft of writing, done in such a way that you never see it stitched together, is wondrous. He’s complicated and observant and I think I may love him.

    • Thanks so much, Alice. He’s got such and understated way if writing, that really invites close reading. Complicated and observant are perfect ways to describe him. When I read O’Nan’s essay it made me really sad to hear that his books had gone out if orient by then. Luckily he was rediscovered. I can understand how he can be your favourite writer. Which book did you like the most?

      • The Easter Parade, definitely. I’ve only ever disliked one of his books, and I still need to read his short stories.

        So lucky he was rediscovered, he’s the voice condemning the illusion that was the American dream.

  6. Hey! I found the first 100 pages incredibly hard to get through too! For me, what turned it around was reading the end — once I had a sense of what the book was building toward, the rest of it felt more important and interesting, and it had momentum for me again. And in the end I really liked this book, even though, yeah, the soul-deathiness of suburbia is not typically a favorite theme of mine in fiction.

    • Ha. Interesting that you felt the same. It’s one of those books that improves once you know the end. Those suburbia stories aren’t really my thing either but he did an outstanding job. Easter Parade isn’t set in suburbia. It’s very different.

  7. I’ve read everything Richard Yates wrote and consider him the great minimalist over Raymond Carver and others. By now, we are far from the minimalist movement of the eighties and nineties as novels seem to be getting longer and longer. Still I appreciate cutting the writing down to the basics.

    • So glad to hear that. I can see myself reading everything he wrote.
      I couldn’t agree more on his style. On the other hand, his sentences have a lovely rhythm and are quite long. They jusr carry you along. Haven’t seen that much. No fluff. I appreaciated that.

  8. Nice piece. It really is superbly well written isn’t it? It has to be I suppose, because as you say you spend a long time in the head of someone who really isn’t terribly likable.

    I wrote about it myself ages back here: I do hope you read more by him, not least as I’d like to see your take on Easter Parade which I haven’t read yet (I’ve only read this and A Good School, which I tried after this so as to read one of his more minor novels by way of comparison).

    • Thanks, Max. It was quite a discovery. I’m very I tested in our review so will pass shortly. Thanks for the link.
      I just finished Easter Parade and hope to review it soon. It’s so different.

  9. Wonderful review, Caroline. I loved this sentence from your review – “His style may be effortless, his structure and narrative choices are not.” Sometimes things look effortless and spontaneous, but that is just a great master at work. I loved your description of Yates as a writer’s writer. I haven’t read ‘Revolutionary Road’ yet, but I saw the movie when it came out. I liked the movie, though it was hard to watch – it is sad when people try to get a better life (better from their perspective, not necessarily a life filled with more wealth) but fail repeatedly in their pursuits. I keep thinking sometimes on what happens when one wants to do something (writing, singing, acting, painting, fixing cars, computer programming etc.), but one is not good at it. Should one abandon that activity because one is not good at it, or should one pursue it because one loves it? It is a question that doesn’t seem to have any easy answers. Yates, it seems, tries to address this question in his own way. ‘Eleven Kinds of Loneliness’ is such a beautiful title. I want to read that 🙂 Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I hope you will read this. I’d love to know how you like it. He is a master.
      It’s very tragic, indeed but in the book they are much more unlikable, so it’s easier to bear. Nonetheless, finding out you’re nothing special when you thought you were . . . Devastating. Eleven Kinds of Loneliness is an amazing title. I’m glad I’ve got it already. I hope he is as good in the short form as he us in novels.

  10. Great review, Caroline.
    I agree that Yates is a very good writer, but I found the characters and the ending just loathsome. Couldn’t watch the movie because the book depressed me so much.
    I’m guessing the reason Yates hasn’t found more fame is that people don’t want to be reminded that they haven’t achieved their dreams. Sometimes dreams are all people have, and who’s going to thank Yates for taking them away?
    On a different note, I thought it was interesting that Elaine from “Seinfeld” was based on Yates’s daughter Monica.

    • Thanks, Carole. Glad you liked the review.
      I totally get what you say. I think that was the reason why it took me so long to get into it. In a way Easter Parade is even worse and I do wonder how to interpret those horrible endings for his female characters. Still, his observations are amazing. I admire his craft but he isn’t a kind writer.

  11. I have had a stack of Yates’s books for a while now and you make me want to go and pick one up right now. I am always impressed by an author who can make me like a book/love and appreciate it even when the characters are so unlikable and maybe even shallow. But why should characters always be likable–sometimes the most interesting ones are the ones that push a reader into feeling strongly about them. He seems an author who is well worth the effort. I will definitely read the book, but I think in this case I will pass on the movie.

    • I’d love to hear what you think of him. I find him entirely captivating. I’ve finished two of his books and will start the third shortly. His writing is so smooth. His observations so pertinent.
      Oh, I agree, charcaters don’t need to be likable but these aren’t nasty, they are just a bit dull and don’t get it. That’s their tragedy really.
      I wouldn’t say the film’s bad but it’s nothing like the book.

  12. I’ve only seen the film, which I quite enjoyed. Yates is one of those writers I’ve been meaning to read, ‘one day’.

    Anyway, I finally got around to catching up on other people’s blog posts. I followed the link and read the story you had published, and I like it a lot. It’s clear from the way you critiqued Revolutionary Road that you’re reading more as a writer now, and your insight into the mechanics of writing added all sorts of extra dimensions to this post, which I found very interesting. The premise of Revolutionary Road is totally relevant to today, I think. A lot of people have delusions of grandeur and want to be ‘famous’ or live a ‘fabulous’ life, but reality has a way of making those dreams crash to earth. Accepting that we’re ‘not special’ can be hard. 🙂 I hope Yates’ other novels live up to your expectations.

    • Thanks for reading the story, Violet and for your kind comment. I often try to read like awriter but I didn’t always let that get into the reviews. This year I decided to submit my stories and four of them were accepted pretty quickly. Now I feel less like a fraud (odd, right) and allow myself to add craft comments.
      I’ve know a few people like the Wheeler’s. Some never noticed but some did and to seem the break apart was awful. And sad.
      I’d love to know what you think of Yates. He’s really interesting. I’m just in two minds about the choices he makes for his female protagonists. I’ve seen him called misogynistic but I’m not sure that he is. I rather think he was very ware of women’s limited choices. At the time, that is.

  13. Why do I keep missing your blog posts, why do they not show up in my reader?
    So I’m late to the party, as usual.
    I too am hooked on Richard Yates, although there is only so much of him I can read at any point in time, as he is so depressing (especially when you feel yourself you have not quite achieved your dreams yet). Revolutionary Road has been my favourite so far, but I still have to read Easter Parade and some others. Thank you also for the link to the articles about him – looking forward to reading them.

    • Don’t worry. Sometimes posts just don’t appear. I’m awfully behind reading.
      I think I like Revolutionary Road better than Easter Parade. I’m not sure why his writing doesn’t depress me and I’d like to have achieved more? The world he depicts is just too foreign for identification, I guess.
      I have to hunt down your reviews. The articles are great. I hope you’ll like them.

  14. Somehow I missed your review last week, but I’ve been trying to catch up with various bits and pieces over the past few days. Wonderful analysis, Caroline, especially on the POV and structure, That opening section is masterful, isn’t it? In hindsight, it really sets everything up for the remainder of the novel…and the characterisation is superb too.

    I’m looking forward to your review of The Easter Parade – it made my end-of-year highlights for 2015, so I’ll be very interested to see your take on it.

    • Don’t worry. Im awfully behind in reading blogs.
      Glad you liked the post. Thanks. Oh yrs, he is superb. His writing us so deceptively readable that one could almost miss the finesse.
      Maybe it wasn’t so good to read Easter Parade right after this. It’s very different but there are similarities in style and now the two books start to blur.

  15. Pingback: On Richard Yates’ The Easter Parade (1976) and Cold Spring Harbor (1986) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

  16. I appreciate that writers are supposed to write about “what they know” but Yates has followed this advice to the nth degree. Having now read most of his novels and short stories, it’s amazing how the same small numbers of themes keep cropping up….
    Failed relationships
    Military service in WW2
    Lung problems
    Aspiring writer/poet doing mundane job
    Wanting to go and live in Paris
    Almost every story being set in the US north east, apart from the odd trip to Iowa.
    Honestly, after a while it just gets tiresome. Richard, why didn’t you just use a bit of “imagination”?

    • That’s an interesting take. I get your point but think when someone writes like Yates I can forgive his repetitiveness. That said, I’m spacing out the novels, barely read more than two per year, so it might not have occurred to me so much. It’s entirely possible he did lack imagination and just did the best with what he knew.

      • I had to chuckle because just after posting my comment I picked up his collected short stories (bought it for my wife at Christmas!) and, you’ll never guess this, two of the final stories were based in a TB hospital and on the front line in Germany in 1945! I’m glad I discovered him, though he’s no Roth or Updike. In terms of US writers I would place him on a par with John Cheever (from what I have read).

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