A cry for help from the comfort trap

The last few times we visited, the topic was crickets, the importance of free will, and the pioneer spirit of "Into The Wild." Now I want to talk about the ant farm we’re living in here in Minneapolis and another new movie, "Revolutionary Road," which, when it hits screens next month, should but very likely won’t be a bitch-slap to the moribund middle class that makes up much of my neighborhood.

It stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, and it is based on Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about a young well-to-do couple in the suburbs of Connecticut who think they’re too cool for the small town they’ve deigned with their faux-boho royalty. My wife and I read it when we first had kids, and we loved it because it depicted the boiling-lobster world we found ourselves slippery-sloping into; a comfort trap the size of Lake Harriet where skimmers talk about kids, schools, home improvements, and little else.

For the longest time I thought "Revolutionary Road" was solely about the claustrophobia of marriage and the forced friendships that come with it, but upon re-reading it I discovered it is about the quicksand of all institutions: Yates clinically strips away the artifice that surrounds society, government, and religion, and forces readers to acknowledge that the rules they’ve based their lives on are mirages at best.

To read it is to see for certain that we are merely a bunch of kids building tree forts, and making up the rules as we go along. I do not recommend it lightly, for it can be a disturbing experience depending on how your own life and psyche is aligned, and over the years when I’ve passed it along it has elicited two reactions — "It’s my favorite book" and "I wish I’d never read it."

Upon its publication, Kurt Vonnegut called "Revolutionary Road," "’The Great Gatsby’ of my time… one of the best books by a member of my generation." After I finished it, I asked my parents if they’d read it. They were cooking in their new suburban kitchen, and they both stopped in their tracks. "That was our life," said my dad, a family man-slash-seeker whose intellectual restlessness rubbed off on all his kids. "It’s the only book I’ve read twice," said my mom, a homemaker-slash-thinker whose tenacity for family, God, and marriage provided a safe place for all that wanderlust to land.

But "Revolutionary Road" was decidedly a tale of the ’50s — that decade of widespread clenched buttocks, but also of Kerouac and the beginnings of the Beats and rock ‘n’ roll. So why now? Why is the film being produced now, and what does the story of Frank and April Wheeler’s punctured perfect world have to say to America that the toothless "American Beauty" didn’t? Consider the first scene, a Hindenburg-worthy opening night at the community theater:

They all knew, of course, and said so again and again as they filed inside and took their seats, that "The Petrified Forest" was hardly one of the world’s great plays. But it was, after all, a fine theater piece with a basic point of view that was every bit as valid today as in the thirties ("Even more valid," one man kept telling his wife, who chewed her lips and nodded, seeing what he meant; "even more valid, when you think about it").

If it’s done well, "Revolutionary Road" could be the third film of the year (along with "Across The Universe" and "Into The Wild") that peals away the veil of the middle class’s complacency, and I, for one, am all for it. Because in Minneapolis at the moment, there are bridges and roads out, and we are all running around like rats in a maze, ants in an ant farm, while the masters of the universe watch to see how we deal with the non-strife that is sitting in traffic listening to the war on the radio.

Which is to say that "Revolutionary Road" is laughing at you, and me, and everyone we know. It tacitly asks, as Dan Wilson does on his great new CD, "Whatchou gonna do with your free life?" It is about a time in America when everyone knew their roles. They expended their energy on keeping their chins up while nuclear war loomed. They hid behind chit-chat and died a slow death while their children came up on their heels and started making real changes and created a new way of being.

Sounds like the perfect date movie.

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.