This book is stunning. It is crystal clear throughout in its focus on an advanced stage of postwar suburban ennui. The writing has a sustained probing energy, continually going deeper than one might expect into the details and psychology of the characters. And thus the book is somehow completely current and contemporary in its perspective. The characters might be dated in some of their assumptions and expectations, but their discoveries and behavior and feelings are shockingly contemporary and real, and the subtle narration and POV shifts are truly up-to-the-minute. There is one place, maybe a couple of them, where one of the characters says something like “there’s no fucking way that’s possible.” Even if people spoke that way at the time, in the 50s, I would have thought that no one would write it out so clearly (in 1961), and it’s a surprise to see characters in that frozen, Father Knows Best/Eisenhower world expressing themselves the same way that we do.
The characters are powerful and detailed, especially the central couple, Frank and April Wheeler. It seems as if Frank’s worrying, sensitive, stumbling consciousness is the driving force in the story, but we discover that April, the 50s housewife who doesn’t know herself and somehow “isn’t there,” holds the keys, literally, to the novel’s engine. The car keys come to the fore towards the end when she stays back with the fixated, misunderstood reformed brute Shep Campbell at the local dive, the Log Cabin, and she gets drunk and has sex with him in the back of the car, a true act of desperation (she has just finished the first trimester of her unwanted pregnancy), at the end of which she tells Shep that he can’t be in love with her because she doesn’t exist. After this she is determined to destroy the fetus, along with herself if necessary. We get into her perspective and memory in a devastating way toward the very end, as she remembers a rare, painfully short visit from her father that is truly pathetic. Frank’s amateur psychological analysis has primed us with a means for understanding April’s own childhood of abandonment as the source of her despair and conflicts about parenting and her life, adding to the resonance of the final, sad scenes themselves as they inexorably play out. It’s all very Chekhovian, actually, and we remember April’s ordeal in the failed community theater production at the beginning and it all makes sense. She was doomed from the start.
All of which makes Frank Wheeler something of a sad clown. He’s emblematic of a number of significant male social movements of the period. He’s a veteran of the war, not a hardened centurion like his friend Shep, but his service was real. He became educated and conscious after the war, going to Columbia, so he’s a GI Bill figure, aware and interested but not quite authoritative about literature, Marxism, Freud and everything else. He knows just enough to have a quiet despair about his zhiv job in computer sales promotions, commuting to the city, a man in a suit, white shirt, thin tie. I mentioned that the book rings true to contemporary consciousness througout, but the world of Knox Business Machines and discussions about the future of marketing are truly prescient and rather uncanny (wonder if Steve Jobs read this book as a kid). The novel racks up some extra points here, which probably put it over the top in making it a classic, not that it needs much help aside from the difficulty of overcoming obscurity and neglect. That’s all about to change.
At any rate, I for one completely related to the portrayal of the problem of being overeducated, for lack of a better term, and confused about how to fit into the working world. It’s fascinating how Frank is panicked, ambivalent, and guarded when April surprises him with her plan that they’ll move to Paris, she’ll work, and he can find himself, write, think, do whatever his romantic spirit tells him to do, be free. He immediately hedges and starts bluffing, realizing a vague but haunting conviction that he doesn’t amount to much, doesn’t have any real vision or talent. A close read of the book would compare the passages and lines about Frank “finding himself” and April’s later comments about how she “isn’t there.” Frank is an amazing character, as sad in the end as everything else of course. And all of the other characters in the novel are just as compelling and well-done, in their supporting way.
My one caveat was the presence of the Givenses’ schizophrenic son, I forget his name. I suppose he was fine, and it’s interesting to see him as an extreme result of his mother’s fanatic propriety and his father’s deaf detachment. And I guess the fact that the madhouse, Greenacres, is right there in the middle of the suburbia counts for something as well. The perfect, sedate world of the 50s is really an elaborate hall of mirrors.
So this is getting long and I don’t mean for it to be tedious, but it is a great book. And there are a couple of other items to cover. I pushed to read Rev Road for a number of reasons, one of which was to stay ahead of the upcoming movie version. As I was reading it all I knew was that Sam Mendes had recently finished directing the film. The book is strongly present in the the TV show Mad Men, which lifts very liberally but respectfully from its characters, settings, and concerns. So I was picturing Ken Hamm/Don Draper as Frank Wheeler, and very much January Jones as April–the characters in the show could easily be called Frank and April. After finishing, I was dying to know the stars of the film, and Dicaprio and Winslet are both fine, I suppose, and of course you have the whole Titanic reunion thing (now anti-romantic, and she gets to die this time). Dicaprio is a fantastic actor, and he has a weakness and sensitivity to him that is an important part of Frank’s character, while Hamm has a stronger facade–Hamm could just as easily play Shep Campbell (it will be interesting to see who the actors are playing the other characters in the film). Winslet is okay, and the Titanic thing counts, but it seems as if she just did April Wheeler in Little Children. But one way to look at the film is to see Mendes and great actors doing an American Chekhov production/story, and then it’s all okay.
But I wanted to end on the fact that this is one of those books that I’m pretty upset I didn’t read 20 years ago. That’s just the way it goes, I guess. Best to just enjoy reading a very good book now, stay in the moment. It was also perfect with the things I have been reading and enjoying over the past couple of years, which include Chekhov and New York in the 50s and Capote and Warhol and Partisans/Mary McCarthy. So I’m not sure I would have appreciated it quite so much back in the day, on its own. A great great book.