A few years ago, Time Magazine compiled a lineup of what the publication called “100 Best Novels: 1923 to the Present.” It is arranged alphabetically, which my order-loving mind appreciates — I can barely conceive the debate that went into creating such a list, so the idea of arguing which should be numbers six, sixteen and sixty is incredibly daunting. Exactly where should Richard Yates’s 1961 novel land? Having, at this point, only read twenty-two out of Time‘s hundred (though I suppose I’ve now read twenty-three) it’s hardly fair for me to weigh in on the ranking of Revolutionary Road. All I can do is give my opinion on the book, in relation to nothing aside from itself.
At its core, Revolutionary Road is the story of a young American family in suburban 1950’s Connecticut, and how their life together inexorably falls apart. April and Frank Wheeler have always seen themselves as better than their provincial neighbors; over the course of the novel, Yates writes of their increasing unhappiness and deepening feelings of marital and familial entrapment.
It is absolutely astonishing to me that this is a debut novel. Imagine, to be so masterful, so witty, so observant — it’s beyond belief. Granted, I feel this way about countless other authors’ publishing premieres (William Golding, Donna Tartt, Bret Easton Ellis, S. E. Hinton…) but doesn’t diminish the power of the writing here. The following line starts at the very end of first page and spills over into the second:
He let the fingers of one hand splay out across the pocket of his shirt to show what a simple, physical thing the heart was; then he made the same hand into a fist, which he shook slowly and wordlessly in a long dramatic pause, closing one eye and allowing his moist lower lip to curl out in a grimace of triumph and pride.
I love the first half of the sentence — the image is so clear, and given such a delicate, romantic sort of twist. Then, the second half — another eloquent description, but one that evokes a more brutal and almost menacing picture. To think — this is the first page! We haven’t yet been introduced to the characters, let alone the plot, and Yates already sets the tone for the next three hundred pages: beautiful and awful, all at once.