Fear & Self-loathing

'Revolutionary Road'

The novelist Richard Yates, who died in 1992, was once called “a writer’s writer’s writer,” a witty epithet for a career spent at a maddening remove from the large public its owner craved. Yates made a splash with Revolutionary Road (1961), a novel praised for its unblinking depiction of suburban ennui. But the splash never rippled very far outward. Revolutionary Road remained the best known of Yates’s nine books, and his career bore the dreaded “nice reviews, no sales” stigma even as other writers, from Andre Dubus to Richard Ford (both students of his at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop), carried his brand of painstaking realism to far greater success.

Yates’s theme was failure; and his struggles—with the effects of alcohol and chain smoking, the indifference of the literary establishment, and his own deepening self-destructiveness and anger—were laid out in Blake Bailey’s 2003 biography, a study harrowing enough to make even the dreamiest would-be writer think twice about a life in art. After the author’s death, a group of admiring younger writers set out to resurrect his reputation and get his books back into print. The campaign brought Yates sufficiently far out into the light for people to discover him, including Kate Winslet, who read a script of Revolutionary Road and persuaded her husband, director Sam Mendes, to do it. The result is the kind of movie meant to impress by its lugubrious seriousness,...

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About the Author

Rand Richards Cooper is Commonweal's contributing editor.