Leaving the city

Leaving the city

Jefferson Chase heads for the ‘burbs
Jefferson Chase

23 July 2010

Publication: Issue 89

I ’m now at an age when I sometimes think I’ve seen it all and then realise that there are lots of things I’ve never done and probably never will. One example is never living in any kind of suburb. After reading Richard Yates’ 1961 novel Revolutionary Road, I think I can live without the experience. The story revolves around a 30-something couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who leave New York City to raise their kids in the fresh air and try to get along, and end up struggling with the question of whether their lives are the sort worth living at all.

After a couple of years in the ‘burbs, even relatively simple forms of communication have become a burden – and a few evening glasses of hooch, a necessary relief.

Almost anything, it now seemed, would have been a better thing to say than what he’d said. But he would think of better things to say later; right now it was all he could do to stand here and think about the double bourbon he would have when they stopped on the way home with the Campbells.

This scene, from early in the book, isn’t the only time Frank Wheeler reaches for the bottle.

Revolutionary Road is a talky novel, but what really makes it come alive is the stark contrast between the pseudo-intellectual things the characters say and brutal directness with which Yates relates their inner emotions.

A nosy, self-righteous, real-estate-obsessed neighbour of the Wheelers, for instance, proves to be an emotional wreck in private.

She cried because she’d had such high, high hopes about the Wheelers tonight and now she was terribly, terribly, terribly disappointed. She cried because she was fifty-six years old and her feet were ugly and swollen and horrible…she cried because Howard Givings was the only man who’d ever asked her to marry him, and because she’d done it, and because her only child was insane.

All of the characters in Revolutionary Road question their motivations for entering into marriage, but none more so than April Wheeler, although we are relatively rarely granted access to her thoughts. Instead, Yates depicts her despair via details:

After a while she sat heavily on the sofa and began a lethargic picking-over of old magazines. Then she dropped them and lay back, setting her sneakered feet on the coffee table, and said, “You really are a much more moral person than I am, Frank. I suppose that’s why I admire you.” But she didn’t look or sound admiring.

In this relationship, it’s ultimately April, and not Frank, Wheeler, who wears the pants.

Yates, who died in 1992, was a favourite of many of his fellow writers but never landed a bestseller. That was due perhaps to the fact that he, like his characters, had alcohol and relationship problems. But it probably also came down to the fact that his works are extremely bleak descriptions of the way most people live.

Never having existed in a suburb I have no way of knowing whether Yates’ depiction is at all accurate. Theme of trying to do the right thing and worrying the whole while that one is heading down a very wrong path rang true.

Most people, I think, can empathise with that sort of uncertainty. And Revolutionary Road made me personally glad that, when I want a drink and a change of scenery, it’s only one city block.

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