Pay attention, class. Note the masterful manner in which Richard Yates opens Revolutionary Road, his coruscating first novel of suburban angst and the influence of the Great American Dream. It is 1955—heyday of the men in grey flannel suits, with The Feminist Mystique eight years away – and a community theatre in western Connecticut is readying for its debut show. The play they have chosen is The Petrified Forest, an indicator of what’s to come.
April Wheeler appears, in a vibrant performance that will ominously go downhill. Her husband, Frank, sits “biting his fist in the last row of the audience”. Others emerge: the blundering Shep Campbell and the determined-to-be-nice Helen Givens, providing a foretaste of their roles in the carefully-plotted book.
Observe the aptness, the irony: a book that shows up suburban pretence starts with a theatrical performance that, by definition, is pretence, too. (Correct, class: the scene is a version of T.S. Eliot’s “objective correlative”, which Yates frequently spoke of to his Iowa writing program students.)
Scrutinise now the pitch-perfect sentences: realism undercut by farce; satirical but not completely. The author cares enough about his characters’ predicaments not to be totally derisive.
Oh, and the best part? After the chapter is over, you have the rest of this brilliant, tragic novel about the betrayal of promise to look forward to.