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Yates gets new mileage out of 'Revolutionary Road'

By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

SCARBOROUGH, N.Y. — Before Revolutionary Road, the movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, there was Revolutionary Road, the 1961 novel. It's a cult classic that, thanks to Hollywood, finally has become a best seller.

And before that, there was Revolutionary Road, the street where I happen to live in suburban Westchester County, 25 miles north of Manhattan.

Both the movie (filmed in Connecticut) and novel are set in 1955 in a fictional Connecticut suburb called Revolutionary Hill Estates. But there's a direct connection between my street and the novel.

Richard Yates, who wrote it, lived nearby as a boy, at the intersection of Revolutionary Road and what is now Route 9 — in the same house John Cheever, another great and better-known chronicler of middle-class discontent, later lived in.

It was a converted gatehouse on the estate of a banker/philanthropist who helped artists and writers. The estate has been divided into condominiums. The gatehouse remains, an unmarked literary landmark.

I doubt if the movie will change that. Yates' story is about a beautiful young couple, Frank (DiCaprio) and April (Winslet) Wheeler, who end up betraying each other and their ideals.

It's a grim depiction of post-World War II suburbs as cultural wasteland — not the stuff embraced by tourists or chambers of commerce.

But the movie triggers a few stories from what may be called Yates-Cheever Country — the same literary landscape that helped inspire Mad Men, the acclaimed TV series set in the early '60s.

From the ages of 11 to 13, Yates lived in Scarborough, a neighborhood within the town of Ossining. "It was perhaps the only time in his chaotic childhood — moving from place to place, whenever his sculptor-mother's creditors began to close in — that he was at least a little happy," says Blake Bailey, author of the 2003 biography A Tragic Honesty: The Life and Work of Richard Yates.

In naming his first novel, Yates "perhaps was urged somewhat by his unconscious," Bailey says.

Two weeks before the publication of Revolutionary Road, Yates wrote to his girlfriend about a reunion with a boyhood friend:

"He found it incredible, and I found it spooky, that I had completely failed to remember the name of a winding blacktop road in that town (Scarborough) on which he and I and many of our schoolmates used to pass the most impressionable hours of our formative years: 'Revolutionary Road.' Pretty Freudian, buddy."

Bailey says Yates considered other titles, including The Big Nothing and An Outrage in Toyland, but wisely rejected them. "His publisher protested that the public would perceive the book as a historical novel, an impression they tried to mitigate with a hideous jacket photograph of a sad-looking couple facing in opposite directions."

(The movie tie-in paperback is anything but hideous, with DiCaprio and Winslet on the cover.)

As for the street, Revolutionary Road earned its name. It's a mile long, hilly and winding, and it once was part of the colonial Albany Post Road between Manhattan and Upstate New York.

It's lined by mostly older homes and a cemetery that dates to 1764. A plaque marks the damage caused by a cannonball fired from the Hudson River during the American Revolution by the British warship Vulture, on which Benedict Arnold later escaped.

Yates chose the title "as an indictment of American life in the 1950s," he told Ploughshares magazine in a 1972 interview.

Referring to "Joe McCarthy witch hunts," he said, "A great many Americans were deeply disturbed by all that — felt it to be an outright betrayal of our best and bravest revolutionary spirit — and that was embedded in the character of April Wheeler. I meant the title to suggest that the revolutionary road of 1776 had come to something very much like a dead end in the '50s."

The novel, the first and arguably the best of Yates' seven novels, was hailed by critics and other writers, from Cheever to William Styron. It was a finalist for a National Book Award, along with Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Walker Percy's The Moviegoer. (Percy won.)

But it didn't sell well and slipped out of print, until a Yates' revival was begun by novelist Stewart O'Nan's 1999 essay in The Boston Review: "The Lost World of Richard Yates: How the Great Writer of the Age of Anxiety Disappeared From Print."

A new paperback edition, with an introduction by Richard Ford, was published by Vintage in 2000. And with its movie tie-in cover, the novel is a best seller for the first time. It has risen to No. 9 on USA TODAY's Best-Selling Books list.

The novel also inspired Matthew Weiner, creator of Mad Men, who has named Yates and Cheever as influences.

The AMC series' fictional star, Don Draper, a restless advertising executive, lives, not coincidentally, in Ossining, on a street called Bullet Park. There is no real Bullet Park, only the one imagined in Cheever's 1967 novel of the same name.

As for Yates, after years of financial struggle and too much drinking and smoking, he died from emphysema in 1992. He was 66.

Novelist Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) has read Revolutionary Road several times and finds more to appreciate each time.

"It's akin to Gatsby in how every time you read it, it just gets better," Lehane says. "By even the most cautious literary standards, it has to be considered an American masterpiece."

I can tell who has read Revolutionary Road, whenever I mention my address. When Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America, heard it, he asked, "Will I need to check my dreams at the door?"