The United States is, without question, the most religious country in the so-called developed world. If the pollsters are to…
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Never underestimate the way that happenstance plays such an intrinsic role in life (or, in this instance, a writing life). Consider: in 1992 I had just finished work on my first novel, “The Dead Heart,” and had accepted an assignment from The Observer in London to spend a few days immersed in the gimcrack absurdities of that country-and-western hellhole called Branson, Missouri. On the way back to London (where I was living at the time) I had to drive to Kansas City (a rather interesting town) for the first of two flights back to the U.K., and found one of those amazing used bookshops which was run by a wild bibliophile and seemed to stock everything from Kierkegaard to the poems of Randall Jarrell to the dime store prose of Mickey Spillane. While browsing I happened to come across a copy of Richard Yates’ novel, “Revolutionary Road:” a work I’d heard much about, but had never gotten around to reading (especially as it had just come back into print after a long hiatus). For a whopping $3.50 I bought the slightly dog-eared copy, thinking I might read a chapter or two on the two flights home.
As it turned out I spent the entire transatlantic night seated upright in a cramped economy seat, riveted by Yates’ tale of all-American entrapment. The story was one I knew too well: a couple who meet in New York after the war, both unformed and uncertain of their place in the world. She falls pregnant. They marry. A second child quickly arrives – and they talk themselves into that commonplace compromise: a life in the then-expanding white-bred suburbs. Whereupon they realize that they have entrapped themselves in a cul-de-sac of their own making, and begin to emotionally implode.
Having been raised amidst a postwar marriage that was Strindbergian in its explosiveness – and having been dragged each summer to a Connecticut seaside town (Old Greenwich) for two months, where we rented a house amidst all the other suburbanites – the physical and emotional geography of the novel hit me with full frontal force. But so too did its themes of self-entrapment and the way we so often talk ourselves into lives that we simply don’t want. And then there was Yates’ devastating command of marital dysfunction and the brutal honesty he showed when it came to detailing the way the couple in the novel – Frank and April Wheeler – articulate their despair by flailing at each other.
The novel resonated within me for weeks thereafter. I told many friends about it (especially American friends of my generation). And a few months later, when I began work on my second novel, “The Big Picture,” I too began to write a tale of self-entrapment in the Connecticut ‘burbs – very different in style and orientation to Yates’ masterpiece, but nonetheless my own hommage to one of the truly great postwar American novels… and one which still speaks volumes today about the way we are the ultimate architects of our own unhappiness.