Richard Yates chronicled the American Dream from the inside, as he knew and lived it; he was an American writer. Compared to Chekhov and considered the poor man’s Fitzgerald for his style, Yates received praise from the likes of Andre Dubus, Dorothy Parker, William Styron, Kurt Vonnegut and Tennessee Williams, yet sold so few books in his lifetime for him to make a living as a writer; in fact, the only novel of his that I’ll bet you’ll find at your bookstore is his Revolutionary Road. Yates is our inside man.
Georges Simenon, a Belgian and a name that nobody associates with the American Dream, wrote about it from the outside, as an astute observer, when he lived in Lakeville, CT, while his son attended the prestigious Hotchkiss School. Yates’s post-mortem is Revolutionary Road (1961). Simenon had rendered his conclusion in The Rules of the Game (1955). Like The Mahé Circle, which French publisher Gallimard released in 1946 and Penguin made available to readers in a translation this spring, Game had slept for decades until it was translated into English in 1988.
The American Dream; it is the national epic, the story of the self-made man who becomes somebody, a contender for upward mobility, a number in the race for economic and material security; a dream that F. Scott Fitzgerald satirized in The Great Gatsby, that Arthur Miller eulogized in Death of a Salesman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attempted to resurrect in “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” At the heart of the American Dream, beneath the noble sentiment of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” is Obsession, which is the theme and backdrop to all of Yates’ writing and all of Simenon’s romans durs, his ‘hard’ psychological novels.
Yates and American writers before and after him have responded to the existential crisis that film noir illustrates so well: the good guy works hard and does all the right things but goes nowhere, often making some bad decision along the way. The schoolbook yarn about republican simplicity, the virtue of a selfless life and public service are not enough. As the nation grew, so did its economy with its cheap labor from slaves, immigrants, or its exploited lower and middle classes. Whether it was Old or New Money, the wealthy imitated European aristocracy, built their palatial mansions, housed servants, and hosted costume balls. These new aristocrats would establish exclusive clubs and marry their daughters off to European royalty, who had titles but no money. They sent their children on grand tours of Europe and reintroduced the practice of tipping, a custom that the Founding Fathers despised because it implied class distinction. The few who had so much lived well, while the many who had so little did not.
Frank and April Wheeler do all that society has asked of them. They are middle-class. They buy a house in the burbs. They have children. They are subscribers to the Dream. Both are conformists. He has a monotonous job, a monotonous commute and she suffocates in taking care of the house and minding the children. They are miserable; they come to loathe one another. They are frustrated failures, unhappy with their lives. The Wheelers are domestic combatants, skilled at verbal and physical abuse. They aspire and they reach for more because they feel entitled, but neither Frank nor April has the will or impetus to effect change. They have a vision, they have a plan that they fail to execute. Their antecedent, Gatsby, had charisma, energy and a romantic imagination in his destructive quest for Daisy Buchanan, and dies a tragic figure, having been blinded by his obsession. Jay Gatsby was murdered in the end, but he was a living suicide inside an unsustainable dream. Death had saved him.
Death does come to Revolutionary Road, but there is no overt tragedy in its wake. A clueless character, a stagnant person remains unchanged. The American Dream is flawed, dead at the end of the street Yates named Revolutionary Road, but the people doing the dreaming were dangerous, dull, and unimaginative. In a word, unending materialism and a lack of self-awareness lead to narcissism and nihilism. Readers today are accustomed to, if not desensitized to, suburban malaise, but the psychological portrait of the Wheelers in Revolutionary Road remains a very uncomfortable and visceral read. Yates paints a portrait of devastation, using simple words and layering the details, page after page, letting them sneak up on the reader.
Simenon’s Walter Higgins is the opposite of Frank Wheeler. He sincerely loves his wife, worries about his tomboyish daughter, Flo, and does all that is expected of him, including mowing the lawn, without any bickering. Walter, however, is restless, but he has a plan. The problem is that he is dependent on others. His bootstraps have lifted him only so far.
Walter believes that membership in the town’s country club will prove that he has ‘arrived.’ The club is his Obsession. He believes that this one thing will secure respect and status for his family. He is rejected. Worse, he knows the individuals who voted against his application, and worse than that is that he is rejected a second time. Simenon’s cynicism is darker than Yates’s in that the reader knows that Walter will never be accepted. The reader understands the country club acceptance as something banal. Walter does realize where he came from, how far he has come up in society. He goes back to the neighborhood where he grew up with his difficult mother, appalled at the complacency and ignorance he finds there. He returns to the burbs, grateful, but his is an embattled contentment. His quiet despair is not in living the life of quiet desperation, but understanding that human life has no worth in American society. This is the unspoken rule in a cynical game.
Just as the fisherman places a stick in the pail to stir his captive crabs, the grocer bands the lobster’s claws to prevent cannibalism, likewise Yates and Simenon demonstrate their interpretations of the American Dream. Yates knows that inevitably a crab will try to climb its way up the stick and out of the pail because the crab, just as the Wheelers, wants more. In real life, in this analogy, the other crabs in the pail will pull down the ambitious escapee. The Wheelers drown each other. Simeon, though, has a deeper, noirish understanding of the situation; he knows that there are greater social forces at play: someone stirs the water with a stick to create chaos, while another bands the claws to protect his interest.
There is no crime in Rules and readers may think that not much happens in this novel, unlike Road where each scene between Frank and April blisters with tension. Simenon’s style is understated, just as cumulative in his details as Yates, but the violence isn’t the car accident as it unfolds frame-by-frame with Frank and April, but how fast, how senseless and how worthless life is to the people on the street before and during the accident. People will walk on.
Simenon valued his romans durs because he considered the psychological portrait harder work than his popular procedurals – this from a man who wrote over four hundred novels, seventy-five of them with Inspector Jules Maigret. Simenon extends some hope. Where the Wheelers remain ignorant, Higgins has some awareness. The crime is that nothing will change, despite his energy, his movement to better himself. It is easy to forget Simenon’s prescience. He wrote Rules in 1955, at a time when Ozzie & Harriet was on television.
Yates wrote from his own life. He did ‘all the right things,’ yet success eluded him. He was married (twice) and had three daughters. Revolutionary Road, his debut novel, was nominated for the National Book Award along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 but lost to Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. He received a Guggenheim, wrote speeches for RFK, and scraped by with teaching positions and the largesse of friends. All the literary praises and rewards did little for Yates. Perhaps, Simenon was correct: try, but it might not matter. Yates would experience several shattering mental breakdowns. His one-time student and lifelong supporter and admirer, Richard Price, wrote:
Richard Yates was a magnificent wreck, a chaotic and wild-hearted presence, a tall but stooped smoke-cloud of a man, Kennedyesque in dress and manner, gaunt and bearded with hung eyes and a cigarette-slaughtered voice…
Yates died a bitter and sick man in 1992, aged 66, not from a daily 4-pack-a-day cigarette habit that rewarded him with emphysema, or from drink, but from complications arising from a hernia surgery.