Few books encourage me to take longer and longer to digest them the more I read. Revolutionary Road is one of them. I managed to get this one done in about a year. I tried to drain the beast dry.
The “Greatest Generation” and their lives in the 50s and 60s are often idealized in popular culture, but not here. The book introduces the characters through a play-within-a-play device that works remarkably well throughout. Everyone is ham-handedly trying to fit the roles they’ve grasped at or been assigned in life — and failing miserably. The overwhelming oblivion of the characters’ empty lives bangs on like the insistent, lame drumming of Steve Kovick and his klutzy combo at Vito’s Log Cabin. Yates gives us no one to root for. Not even the lounge musicians are granted an air of belonging and competence.
My thrice-married father was a product of that generation. His martini-quaffing, suit-hat-and-tie-wearing, Chrysler Saratoga-driving, deal-making and nightclubbing ways could have qualified him for inclusion as a minor character in this book. Perhaps the emotional lives of the characters ring true for me because they remind me of my father’s opaque isolation. This was just how things were back then. You did what was expected, just out of duty — the same sense of duty that won the war. And just as in war, there were many casualties and many walking wounded.
A central theme is failed fatherhood. Men here procreate without really caring for or nurturing their offspring. Women let them get away with it because that’s what society tells them to expect, but not without cost, nor without complaint:
“I mean come to think of it, you must give him a pretty bad time, if making babies is the only way he can prove he’s got a pair of balls”
says John Givings in a classic outsider’s moment of clarity. The father is either gone or just not really there in the life of each character. The spectacular list of consequences of absentee (and weak or selfish) fatherhood scrolls off the page.
The prose is just this side of brilliant. Yates is able to bring the reader into the minds of each major character as he shifts perspective, but all the while never inspiring much more than empathy. As readers we feel the second-guessing and weaknesses in each player. Although we understand their viewpoints, we sure are glad we don’t have to live that way.
In the end the reader sees the world through April Wheeler’s eyes more than anyone else’s. When she tells her suitor that she can’t love him not only because she doesn’t know who he is, but also because she doesn’t know who she is, we know what she means. Having failed to know and love herself, she can’t love anyone else, either. That diagnosis extends to almost everyone in the book, with the exception of an insane jester figure–the only one able to speak his mind openly and courageously in hidebound 1950s suburbia.
Probably one of the best American novels of the twentieth century.
Almost sad that I’m finally done with Revolutionary Road.