Charles Petzold

Reading “Revolutionary Road”

December 8, 2008
New York, N.Y.

I've been wanting to read Richard Yates' novel Revolutionary Road (1961) ever since April 9, 2000, when I read an essay by Richard Ford about it in the New York Times Book Review. That essay was also the Introduction to a new paperback edition of Revolutionary Road by Vintage that I bought soon thereafter and which has been sitting around here begging to be read ever since.

The matter of reading Revolutionary Road became much more critical recently. I knew I better hurry before the movie came out and forever distorted our perceptions of the novel.

Unfortunately, I wasn't quite fast enough. From just a few glimpsed seconds of movie trailer, throughout my reading of Revolutionary Road I pictured the character of Frank Wheeler as Leo DiCaprio (although part of that could just be attributed to perfect casting). For April Wheeler, however, Kate Winslet was far from my mind. Instead I pictured January Jones, the actress who plays Betty Draper in the splendid AMC series Mad Men. There was something in April's focused determination, in the cold clipped rhythm of her short sentences, that seemed very much like Betty.

My identification of April Wheeler with Betty Draper might not be just in my fanciful head. Revolutionary Road must have been required reading for the writers of Mad Men, and I wouldn't be surprised if more than just period flavor made it into the series.

It is 1955. Frank and April Wheeler, both on the edge of turning 30 years old, live with their two small children on Revolutionary Road in the Connecticut suburbs, near the Revolutionary Hill Estates (and yes, that's an ironic use of the word "revolutionary"). Frank takes the train into New York City to his job at Knox Business Machines, a tired old company that might find itself in the advent of the computer revolution. April stays home to watch the children. Everybody drinks and smokes, even during pregnancy. There are no designated drivers.

Revolutionary Road grabbed me with the first chapter: a terrifying description of an evening gone horribly wrong. It is the debut performance of the Laurel Players, a new community theater group founded by the Wheelers and their friends and neighbors. They have chosen The Petrified Forest as their first play, and at first it seems to be going well, but then it just crumbles and all that anybody can do is just wait for it to end.

It turns out the Wheelers and their neighbors founded the Laurel Players not just to have fun putting on a play, but to prove to themselves that they are better than the soul-sucking Suburbs in which they live. Frank and April, after all, had lived in a dingy hip apartment in the West Village while Frank finished Columbia and April was an aspiring actress, and when Frank says that he now has "the dullest job you can possibly imagine," (p. 13) he means it as a point of pride, that it's just a job and he is way to cool to actually enjoy it.

After the Laurel Players disaster, however, the most painful conclusion seem unavoidable: that The Suburbs is precisely where they all belong, and it gets worse when Frank actually begins to enjoy the new possibilities of his work:

This is a vivid compelling novel of two ordinary people trying to find extraordinary meaning in their lives, and it packs a powerful punch.