Suburbs of Our Discontent

Misery and banality in a 1950s Connecticut development—rendered with anatomical precision on the page, and now coming to the screen

The thumbnail social history of the United States, as Godfrey Hodgson (the author of America in Our Time) once phrased it to me, is as follows: agrarian population moves as soon as it can to the cities, and then consummates the process by evacuating the cities for the suburbs. More Americans now live in the suburbs than anywhere else, and more do so by choice. Anachronisms of two kinds persist in respect of this phenomenon. The first is the apparently unshakable belief of political candidates that they will sound better, and appear more authentic, if they can claim to come from a small town (something we were almost spared this year, until the chiller from Wasilla). The second is the continued stern disapproval of anything “suburban” by the strategic majority of our country’s intellectuals. The idiocy of rural life? If you must. The big city? All very well. Bohemia, or perhaps Paris or Prague? Yes indeed. The suburbs? No thank you.

The achievement of Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road was to anatomize the ills and woes of suburbia while simultaneously satirizing those suburbanites and others who thought that they themselves were too good for the ’burbs. It is also the reason why the novel can seem, and in the literal sense is, dated. Published in 1961 and set in 1955, this psychodrama of an ambitiously named development in Connecticut (the source of Yates’s superbly misleading title) recalls us to the period that saw the publication of David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd (1950), Sloan Wilson’s novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), the pop sociology of men like William H. Whyte and Vance Packard, whose critiques The Organization Man (1956) and The Hidden Persuaders (1957) made American business seem impersonal and cynical, and—if this isn’t too fanciful—Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Malvina Reynolds’s song “Little Boxes,” both of which made their debut in 1962. Pete Seeger had a huge success of his own with the song, which ridiculed the harmless citizens of Daly City, California, and gave us the word ticky-tacky. No less a man than Tom Lehrer was to say that it was “the most sanctimonious song ever written,” but this insight would be buried by later developments in the ’60s, when removal to the suburbs became a polite synonym for “white flight” (see the mythscape of Jeffrey Eugenides’s Detroit). When Bertrand Russell published his first short-story collection, in 1953, there was something predictable in the fact that it was titled Satan in the Suburbs and Other Stories. Hollywood has since had considerable fun with that trope, and bids fair to do so again when Revolutionary Road comes to the screen, starring the Titanic duo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.

Frank and April Wheeler are the reverse of the unhappy family in Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. They have already tasted the fruits and sweets of the big city, and qualified as urban—perhaps better say urbane—sophisticates. But you know how it is. Pregnancy comes to April a teeny bit earlier than had been anticipated (or desired), and the distressing need to earn some actual money is then imposed upon Frank, who must martyr his aestheticism to the brute requirements of “the firm.” Soon enough the days become regulated by the commute and, of course, by the needs of the children.

Even so, the lost Bohemia of their Greenwich Village period will not be denied, and before too long Frank and April are smilingly condescending to help out a local troupe called, with brilliant ominousness, the Laurel Players. They decide to build up the spirit of community theater with a production of The Petrified Forest. I shall simply say that I don’t remember ever feeling so sorry for a set of fictional characters. If Yates had one talent above all, it was for conveying the feeling of disappointment and anticlimax, heavily infused with the sort of embarrassment that amounts to humiliation. As the full horror of the first night, and the full catastrophe of April’s own performance, become apparent, Yates catches the ghastly moment by writing, “The virus of calamity, dormant and threatening all these weeks, had erupted now.”

The many phony and bogus ways in which people conceal such moments of truth from themselves and from each other give Yates his unceasing opportunities to create scenes of excruciating misery. How can people bear to suffer so much, one keeps wanting to ask, when no great cause is at stake? Here is the start of an evening of stupefying banality featuring the Wheelers and their most habitual friends, the Campbells:

“Hi!” They called to one another.

“Hi! …” “Hi! …”

This one glad syllable, borne up through the gathering twilight and redoubling back from the Wheelers’ kitchen door, was the traditional herald of an evening’s entertainment. Then came the handshakings, the stately puckered kissings, the sighs of amiable exhaustion—“Ah-h-h”; “Who-o-o”—suggesting that miles of hot sand had been traveled for the finding of this oasis.

And the whole gruesome soiree has yet to be endured! Yates spares us nothing of the boredom and futility and buried hostility that result. It’s clear that he’s no fan either of this smug housing development or of the new forms of capitalism on behalf of which its male inhabitants make their daily dash to the train. Frank’s boss is a droning old booster who talks like this:

“I’m interested in one thing, and one thing only: selling the electronic computer to the American businessman. Frank, a lot of people tend to look down on plain old-fashioned selling today, but I want to tell you something …”

A lesser writer might hold it right there, but Yates goes on to make us feel as hypnotized with boredom as Frank is, trapped at lunch with this martini-soaked Babbitt who furnishes him with a living (and who, by the way, has guessed right about the technological future).

Riesman made the suburbs the prime locale of those who sacrificed their “inner-directed” opportunities in order to be “other-directed” by the prevailing manners and mores of their community. Yates plays a little with this distinction, just as he subjects Frank to alienation (at work) and to anomie (at home). The Wheelers and their friends consider themselves to be in but not thereby of the suburbs. They want it both ways: the comfort to start off, and then the additional luxury of looking down on their intellectually inferior neighbors. And at least at the beginning, they are able to manage this:

“How do you like this Oppenheimer business?” one of them would demand, and the others would fight for the floor with revolutionary zeal. The cancerous growth of Senator McCar­thy had poisoned the United States, and with the pouring of second or third drinks they could begin to see themselves as members of an embattled, dwindling intellectual underground … Frank might talk wistfully of Europe—“God, I wish we’d taken off and gone there when we had the chance”—and this might lead to a quick general lust for expatriation: “Let’s all go!”…

And even after politics had palled there had still been the elusive but endlessly absorbing subject of Conformity, or The Suburbs, or Madison Avenue, or American Society Today.

And yet their dull and Ike-loving neighbors considerately and generously turn out for the Laurel Players, only to find that the culturally superior aren’t as superior as all that. To deadly effect, Yates uses the term revolutionary above in such a way as to make it sound at least as hollow and pretentious as in its employment for the name of a sylvan road.

Haven’t we all heard some irritating person saying that if so-and-so is elected, then he/she is absolutely definitely leaving the country? There must be some reason why it is mainly liberals who tend to say this (I knew the late Mary Lee Settle, fictional chronicler of West Virginia, who did emigrate for a time after the election of Richard Nixon), but the chief thing to note about the promise is that it is usually an empty one. However, after the calamity of The Petrified Forest, April really does decide to pull up stakes and start again, this time in Paris. This initiative on her part is what eventually enables her to see that her husband is no sort of rebel or nonconformist, but instead a mediocre coward.

The proposed move is so central to the action of the book that one regrets to find it so unconvincing. April is supposed to work for NATO headquarters while Frank “finds himself.” One can perhaps imagine him going along with the idea for a bit—he is almost volitionless for much of the time—but it’s somewhat more difficult to picture her believing in the scheme in the first place, let alone involving her children in it. Ah, those children. They try so hard to please their parents and even harder to understand them, and their resulting wretchedness is one of the most haunting subplots of the novel.

As things decompose, and as the prospect of a new start in France begins to recede and then to vanish, the other celebrated suburban sport, adultery, becomes the only untried distraction or escape. It is duly tried, and Yates makes certain that his characters extract everything from infidelity that they might have expected, with the sole exception of sexual pleasure. Again, his gift for depicting bathos and degradation is to the fore. Here for example is the cheery local joint (on Route 12) where assignations may be fueled by alcohol, and music supplied “For Your Dancing Pleasure”:

Piano, bass, tenor sax and drums, they prided themselves on versatility. They could play anything, in any style you wanted to name, and to judge from the delight that swam in their eyes they had no idea of what inferior musicians they were.

Revolutionary Road is replete with moments like that, conveying with great economy the experience of boredom and disgust. “Oh, now, don’t be silly,” says Shep Campbell to his “aimless and pathetic” wife, “allowing his voice to grow heavy and rich with common sense.” He later comes upon her in the kitchen, “spreading some kind of meat paste on crackers, licking her fingers as she worked.”

In this microcosmic hell on Earth, there is always a lower circle. Yates shows us the schizophrenic son of the local realtor, on an outing from his asylum, and causes us to feel both the exquisite pain of madness and the unbearable toll that it exacts on the sane. To give you another sketch of the stupendous way in which Yates could both observe and write, here is how a crazy person smokes:

Lagging behind his parents, he stood with his feet planted wide apart on the wet gravel, slightly pigeon-toed, and gave himself wholly to the business of lighting a cigarette—tamping it methodically on his thumbnail, inspecting it with a frown, fixing it carefully in his lips, hunching and cupping the match to it, and then taking the first deep pulls as intently as if the smoke of this particular cigarette were all he would ever have or expect of sensual gratification.

Awarded the role of idiot savant, the boy speaks the crude and truthful lines that dissolve the Wheeler marriage. And that denouement suddenly seems foredoomed. I close with one more example of Yates’s power, and one criticism of it:

The Revolutionary Hill Estates had not been designed to accommodate a tragedy. Even at night, as if on purpose, the development held no looming shadows and no gaunt silhouettes. It was invincibly cheerful, a toyland of white and pastel houses whose bright, uncurtained windows winked blandly through a dappling of green and yellow leaves … A man running down these streets in desperate grief was indecently out of place.

Again one admires the cadence, even while pausing and pulling up slightly in order to inquire of oneself how it came to be so widely accepted that there is something quiet about desperation.