The best Revolutionary Road adaptation of 2008, hands down, was season 2 of Mad Men. If Sam Mendes's Revolutionary Road takes home any of the bazilion Golden Globe awards it's up for on Sunday night, it'll have very little to do with the limp, Titanicized performances of Kate Winslet and Leo DiCaprio, and every bit to do with the enormous (and justly deserved) reputation that Richard Yates's novel has acquired over the past half-century. Writers in 2008, as they did in 1958, as they did in 1978, passed dogeared copies around like Slint LPs. (I was beaten into the cult of Yates in 2001, a year after Stewart O'Nan's kick-starting reappraisal in the Boston Review, when thephoenix.com's Jon Garelick wrote about the resurrection of Yates's reputation via a new paperback of Rev Road introduced by Richard Ford -- who called it a "cultural-literary secret handshake" -- and a newly-collected edition of Yates stories intro'd by Richard Russo.) The film adaptation, a dud on arrival, was nonetheless an excuse for the literary critics of record to drag out the big guns and offer another generation of praise for a cult classic that's finally become, it seems, a consensus classic. And miraculously, like the Pixies reuniting to play sold-out arenas 20 years after the fact, Revolutionary Road finally cracked the NYT best-seller list this year.
In all the fuss, Yates's novel is often described as an attack on the suburbs, or 1950s conformity. This was not how Yates saw it at all. For him, above all else, Revolutionary Road was a book about abortion. "Everything gets aborted in the book," Yates told DeWitt Henry in 1972. (Henry has posted the audio of his interview with Yates on Emerson's website.) "That was supposed to be the theme
of the book. I remember when I was first working on it and feeling my
way into it, somebody at a party asked me what I was writing a novel
about, and I said I thought I was writing a novel about abortion. And
the guy said what do you mean by that? And I said, it's going to be
built on a series of abortions, of all kinds - an aborted play, several
aborted careers, any number of aborted ambitions and aborted plans and
aborted dreams - all leading up to a real, physical abortion, and a
death at the end. And maybe that's about as close to a real summation
of the book as I've ever come"
When James Woods offered his reassessment in the New Yorker earlier this month, he sidebarred into Yates's early short stories (collected as 11 Kinds of Heartbreak), and in particular into "The Best of Everything," "a masterpiece of bleakness, equal to one of Joyce’s stories in Dubliners." "The Best of Everything" was written in 1952, almost a decade before Revolutionary Road. But it stuck with him. More than a quarter century later, in 1978, Yates was brought to the Boston Public Library to promote his then-new novel A Good School, which had a shade of a local angle in that it was set at a New England boarding school. A few years earlier he'd split with his second wife, and he was living in Boston. He was then, as throughout his adult life, a vicious alcoholic, and he was living in cockroach-infested apartments. "He barely ate," recalled his biographer, Blake Bailey. "He didn't have much of an appetite. He was one
of those alcoholics who had lost interest in food. But every morning
he got the writing done. And during those first Boston years in
the mid-seventies, after he spent the year getting [ex-wife] Martha out of
his system, the drinking was tapered off. He would have maybe a couple of Michelobs at lunch at the Crossroads
[a bar near Mass Ave on Beacon Street], and then he would take a
nap and then he would write again in the afternoon, having written
four hours in the morning. And then he would go and get drunk for
dinner. But goddamn, by that time he had written for seven hours."
When Yates showed up at the BPL in fall of 1978, he declined to dip into A Good School -- or into any of his novels -- and he instead returned to "The Best of Everything," reading the story in its entirety. "This is gonna take about a half an hour," he says, and goes on to apologize for reading "an antique." After he reads it, a moderator opens the floor to questions. There is only silence. Yates can be heard muttering in the background. "Oh no, I'm sure they're not bored," the moderator reassures him.
Here's the audio of Yates reading at the BPL in 1978:
DOWNLOAD: Richard Yates reads "The Best of Everything (October 4, 1978)" [mp3]