If youre hooked on Mad Men, as I am, you owe it to yourself to read Richard Yates s great novel of existential suburban angst, Revolutionary Road (1961). The book is a fucking masterpiece, and I wonder whether “fucking” in that clause does what I want it to do, which is to raise the stakes and assert that here we are on the same level of greatness as achieved by the creators of Jake Barnes, Jay Gatsby, and the people who trek west to California in order to die.
For many years I had neglected this novel in spite of its sterling reputation simply because I misconstrued the title and thought the book had something to do with radical politics in the 1960s. In fact the title designates the suburban street on which our protagonists live. I have not seen the movie version, with Leonardo DiCaprio, though now that I have devoured the book I am most curious to do so.
Imagine that Pete Campbell and Betty Draper of Mad Men are married and you begin to have an idea of what Frank and April Wheeler are like. (OK, not Pete Campbell, but the fellow who went to Princeton and fancied himself a progressive, with a black girlfriend as proof.) They have two kids—a girl, six, and a boy, four—in a New York suburb that resembles Stamford, Connecticut. Most of the action takes place in the six-month period between spring and fall 1955, though flashbacks amplify the tale as needed. Frank works for Knox Business Machines, an outfit rather like IBM, and Yates has a very sharp idea of the technological changes to come in the computer era that was still, in 1961, the stuff of visionaries and science fiction writers. Frank likes to think that he will retain the bohemian values he had when he lived alone in Greenwich Village. This is but one of his illusions.
You can read the novel as a critique of the era or of the generation that fought the war and lost the bliss. There is a character here, a real estate agent, who perfectly (to use a word she favors, as in “what a perfectly lovely afternoon”) represents the reality principle circa 1955. But the heart of the novel lies in the marriage of Frank and April, in their quarrels, their prolonged fights and temporary truces, their negotiations about “maturity,” their differing reactions to an unexpected pregnancy, and their joint daydream of quitting job, residence, and the life of practicality in favor of going to Europe and living an expats life of jeopardy and the unknown.
It is a beautifully structured novel that gets you inside the heads of the characters and moves you—to the point where I wondered, abashed, if I had ever been as craven and self-serving as the male protagonist, who, when wooing April, hears about her childhood and realizes that her tribulations and deprivations dwarfed his: “Jesus, Frank said on first hearing these facts, one irritably hot summer night in the Bethune Street place (though he wasnt quite sure at the time, as he hung and shook his head, whether what he felt was sorrow for the unhappiness of the story or envy because it was so much more dramatic a story than his own).” Though I hasten to add that Frank does have his virtues, and April is far from blameless, and we sympathize with them both as we suffer with them and their children in the woe that is their marriage.
This is the “criticism of life” Matthew Arnold looked for in poems and its done superbly and with a gift for sentences that are poetically beautiful. Let me give an example, from a seduction scene, a male executive collaborating with a female secretary in the time-approved manner that Mad Men has exemplified. A few things to notice in the following: the figurative work done by “bondage” in the first sentence, the active verbs in the second, the sexual rhythm of the language (“knots and buttons and buckles and hooks”), and the upward flow of the second sentence to an orgasmic conclusion, his first, hers equally intense though syntactically an afterthought just as it is in his mind:
Then they were on the couch and the only problem in the world was the bondage of their clothing. Twisting and gasping together, they worked urgently at knots and buttons and buckles and hooks until the last impediment slipped away; and then in the warmth and rhythm of her flesh he found an overwhelming sense of this is what I needed; this is what I needed; his self-absorption was so complete that he was only dimly aware of her whispering, Oh, yes; yes; yes. . .
David Lehman is founder and general editor of Best American Poetry, and author of seven books of poems, most recently Yeshiva Boys and When a Woman Loves a Man. His nonfiction books include A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder.
National Poetry Month 2012,
a special package in celebration of verse